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The walks are part of a province-wide initiative which harness nature’s healing powers to help those with mental illness.
The forest floor is piled with golden leaves. Overhead, a crow squawks and wind rustles through a nearby hemlock grove. A dozen people stand together, inhaling fresh air and peering up through bare maples as the sun peeks through a crack in the slate sky.
This may not be the scene most people imagine when they think of a mental health support group. But the gathering, on a recent autumn morning, is one of the regular hikes organized by the York Region and South Simcoe branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.
It’s part of a province-wide initiative launched this summer called Mood Walks, which harness nature’s healing powers to help those with mental illness.
“This is the highlight of my week,” says Susan Callon, 59, of Markham, who has come on almost every walk since they began last June and considers it an important part of her recovery from depression and anxiety.
“Once I get here, my anxiety goes right down to zero,” says Callon, also a volunteer with CMHA.
“It gives me the opportunity to be present here, right now, instead of having what they call ‘the monkey mind.’ I find myself feeling more at ease and more relaxed and refreshed afterwards.”
By the time the two-hour hike is over, she’ll have walked almost six kilometres.
Growing evidence of how green space benefits mental health inspired the CMHA’s Ontario chapter to launch Mood Walks in partnership with Hike Ontario andConservation Ontario, funded by a $150,000 provincial grant.
More than 20 Ontario branches have taken part in weekly walks through forests, wetlands and urban parks in their regions. Some branches use buses to transport clients, others carpool.
It’s aimed at people over age 50, but has attracted walkers from their 20s through their 70s,” says Anna Lukomsky, a mental health worker who organizes the York-South Simcoe hikes.
“The overwhelming response I’ve had is it makes a huge difference,” says Lukomsky, as she follows the line of walkers on the trail through Jefferson Forest in Richmond Hill.
“It’s so important to address mind, body and spirit in recovery, and that’s what being in nature does.”
CMHA Ontario is getting “great feedback” from the 300 clients who’ve participated, says Mood Walks project manager Andrea Town.
And across the board, they are reporting “improved mood and decreased anxiety” after they hit the trails.
Before and after each outing, clients fill out surveys that rank their happiness, anxiety and energy levels on a scale of one (low) to 10 (high).
They also provided extensive feedback this fall that will be added to the mounting pile of evidence that Mother Nature is a powerful antidote to mental illness.
Research is so compelling that some physicians already prescribe outdoor hikes or time in the woods instead of, or in addition to, medication and therapy.
Green space has been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increase serotonin, which reflects a calmer state. It provides relief from the sensory overload that is part of daily life, especially as a result of technology, and helps restore focus and attention.
And exercise like walking that takes place in the outdoors instead of a gym packs even more of a punch — as a result of changing terrain, fresh air and even the natural chemicals absorbed through the senses.