Canadian Doctors Can Now Prescribe ‘Spending Time in Nature’ for Patients’ Mental Health
Not all doctors recommend just bed-rest, or time-off from work, or pills. Some can even write you prescriptions to go visit parks and spend time in nature. Well, at least, doctors in Canada are doing that.
On January 31, Park Prescriptions (PaRx) and Parks Canada announced they will encourage doctors to prescribe national parks’ passes to patients as forms of treatment. “[Y]our doctor can help improve your health by prescribing time in a national park, national historic site, or national marine conservation area,” the announcement read.
The idea behind the initiative is to improve people’s physical and psychological health, which experts believe spending time in nature can do. Nature has many benefits for humankind — it is linked to improving attention, sharpening our cognition skills, lowering stress, boosting empathy, bettering our mood, and putting us at reduced risk of psychiatric disorders.
This initiative is essentially trying to tap into nature’s healing abilities. “I can’t think of a better way to kick off 2022 than being able to give the gift of nature to my patients… There’s a strong body of evidence on the health benefits of nature time, from better immune function and life expectancy to reduced risk of heart disease, depression, and anxiety, and I’m excited to see those benefits increase through this new collaboration… There’s almost no medical condition that nature doesn’t make better,” said Dr. Melissa Lem, a family physician and Director of PaRx.
Past research has, in fact, suggested that neighborhood parks in urban areas can “reduce stress and traffic congestion, possibly increase social cohesion in the neighborhood and help to counteract air pollution.”
By providing a pass, the program can make time out in nature more accessible and affordable to all — especially at a time when the global health crisis had taken a toll on the mental health of populations across the globe.
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The program also ensures that one is allowed access to the parks more than once. “Visiting a park once is great… But it doesn’t in a very meaningful way reduce the barrier to nature access,” Dr. Lem adds.
The initiative also underlines how it’s not just activities like hiking or trekking — like pop culture and adventure-enthusiasts on social media and dating apps will have you believe — aren’t necessary to unlock nature’s benefits. Such activities may also not even be accessible for several sections of the population due to a variety of reasons ranging from age to disabilities to even one’s economic conditions due to the gears that the activity might warrant.
“[Y]ou don’t have to do extravagant, extraordinary experiences in nature to feel awe or to get benefits… By taking a few minutes to enjoy flowers that are blooming or a sunset in your day-to-day life, you also improve your wellbeing,” said Craig Anderson from the department of psychiatry at the University of California Berkeley, who had led a study last year on the benefits of spending time in nature.
Doctors officially prescribing time in nature as treatment, then, puts access to natural areas in sharp perspective. It bolsters the argument of preserving parks and public commons to maintain individual and collective health.
In a way, this interconnectedness between nature and health can benefit nature too. “Research shows that children and adults who are more connected to nature are not only more likely to work to conserve it, but also engage in other pro-environmental behaviors… If you love something, you want to protect it,” Dr. Lem noted.
“I like to think that every time one of my colleagues writes a nature prescription, we’re making the planet healthier too.”