#NRPAConference: How parks and rec can take the lead on mental health - SmartBrief

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#NRPAConference: How parks and rec can take the lead on mental health

Mental health is an issue where parks and rec can help communities greatly.

3 min read


#NRPAConference: How parks and rec can take the lead on mental health


Parks and recreation agencies have many ways to reach residents: open space, facilities, activities and classes, pop-up and mobile programming, and more. Their mission isn’t limited to recreation, time outdoors or physical health, as the social equity pillar of the National Recreation and Park Association demonstrates.

The importance of mental health and the value parks and rec can bring to the conversation was the topic of a session last week at NRPA’s annual conference in Baltimore, Md., featuring April Chambers of the Florida National Alliance for Mental Illness and Barbara Heller, a consultant with 30 years’ parks and rec experience.

Click to expand (NAMI infographic)

First, the scope of the issue: According to NAMI data presented by Chambers, 20% of American adults experience mental illness annually, more than 18% experience anxiety disorders, while 1 in 25 adults has a serious mental illness. Mental illness is also more likely among people experiencing homelessness, and students 14 or older have high dropout rates when they live with mental illness.

Many adults and youths alike are not being treated for these conditions, and they can also feel isolated as a result. It’s here that parks and rec, through its natural role in public space, outreach and activities, can help reach people with mental health services, education and other offerings. 

Chambers and Heller noted areas where they saw a role for parks and rec to help people affected by mental illness, as well as to educate the broader community. These areas included:

  • Helping people connect with families and others
  • Staying positive through messages, people and activities
  • Mental health first aid training
  • Providing mindful, contemplative spaces (such as the outdoors) 
  • Partnerships to provide mental health services, such as to people experiencing homelessness
  • Forest bathing
  • Mental health days for students
  • The Park Rx and 10-Minute Walk programs

Sometimes these efforts are focused specifically on mental health. Lexington, Mass., has a taskforce that has trained parks and rec and other staff on detecting and responding to mental health issues, as well as the question, persuade, refer method of suicide prevention.

Programs can also be awareness-based, such as the bright yellow benches created through the Josh’s Benches program to publicize information for people in crisis.

Programming doesn’t have to be specifically focused on mental health to have an impact, Chambers and Heller noted. 

Community gardens, dog parks, the 10-Minute Walk program and other offerings can aid mental health even as they serve other everyday purposes such as exercise, fresh produce and so on.

NRPA will be offering health surveys to assess community needs, Heller said. And that interest extends to the NRPA Board of Directors. Board Chairman Jack Kardys has said, “Park afterschool programs are a vital community resource for educational support, job skills and evidence-based mental health promotion for diverse teens.” 

Park agencies can also start now, Chambers and Heller said in their presentation slides, by learning what peers and other agencies are doing, by seeking out partnerships such as NAMI, training their staff and promoting available services to the public.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content. Contact him at @James_daSilva or by email.

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