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 and Conservation 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.
“We encouraged them to set goals at the beginning and they’re very proud of what they’ve accomplished,” she adds, whether they aimed to lose weight, socialize more or commit to just showing up every week.
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.
That wouldn’t come as a surprise to many on this Jefferson Forest trail.
“I just look up and breathe and it’s like a lifeline to me,” says Mike Felaco, 50, of Mount Albert. “You get to lose yourself, you can think better.”
When she arrived this morning, Leah Bader, 52, marked her anxiety as level 8.
But when she left, with pink cheeks and a damp brow, it was a zero.
“I just come here and I breathe the air and feel the wind. And at the end I feel like a different person,” says Bader, of Aurora, who has been coming to CMHA programs for 20 years. “The endorphins give me more energy. And I feel like I’ve accomplished something.”
The connection with other people is also key. Isolation is the biggest barrier to recovery from mental illness, which diminishes energy and self-esteem, says Lukomsky.
Walks are a chance for clients to socialize “and being in nature pushes them to do more things beyond their comfort zone,” she says.
It’s also prompted some of them to organize their own informal outings because being outside makes them feel so much better.
Mood Walks also open their eyes to their surroundings.
Jerry Wajgensberg of the Oak Ridges Trail Association has guided all the walks in this region and he packs them with tidbits about wildlife, history and geography.
Some CMHA branches will continue walking throughout the winter while others will stop until spring.
Lukomsky’s group is moving indoors to the Upper Canada Mall in Newmarket. But at their final outdoor hike last week, members were talking excitedly about foot gear for ice and snow, and whether they might try snowshoeing.