Mental Wellness and the Green Lift: Mood Walks Summit Report

On Tuesday, March 31, 2015, Mood Walks presented Mental Wellness and the Green Lift, a one-day knowledge exchange and networking summit to share the exciting strides taken in its pilot year creating a provincewide program of green space walking groups for people living with mental health challenges. Held at the YWCA Elm Centre in downtown Toronto, the Summit welcomed dialogue among current Mood Walks program leaders, participants, partners and a range of attendees from the mental health and ecohealth communities of practice.

Exuberance for the program was illustrated by an excellent attendance of 90 at the Mood Walks Summit. Attendees included program managers, volunteers and participants from numerous agencies including CMHA branches in Elgin, Middlesex (Exeter), Grey Bruce (Markdale), Brant County, York Region, and Niagara, as well as from Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care (Penetanguishene) and Homewood Health Centre (Guelph). Other attendees included affiliates from Rouge Valley Health System, Houselink Community Homes, the Centre for Skills Development and Training, Self-Help Resource Centre, Community Living York South, Covenant House Toronto, Good Shepherd HOMES, and others. Attendees involved in the educational sector included the Toronto District School Board and Ryerson University.

Morning Session

Mood Walks program director Scott Mitchell opened the day with an overview of the program’s successes during its pilot year, which was focused on creating Mood Walks for older adults. In 2014, enabled by provincial leadership from CMHA Ontario, Hike Ontario and Conservation Ontario, 22 Mood Walks groups were launched by community mental health agencies across Ontario, supported by 37 partnerships with local hiking clubs, trail associations, Conservation Authorities and student volunteers. During its first year, Mood Walks participants tallied 896 hours of walking. See the Mood Walks Evaluation Summary for more details.

To thank program leaders and participants on the occasion of the Summit, new Mood Walks T-shirts, produced by the social enterprise Phoenix Printshop of Eva’s Initiatives, were given out and worn by many over the day.

Mood Walks partners Tom Friesen of Hike Ontario and Jayme Crittenden of Conservation Ontario both offered enthusiastic comments on their participation in the program’s first year. Through the involvement of Hike Ontario, 257 Mood Walks participants received Safe Hiker training, and 51 individuals became Certified Hike Leaders, fulfilling the educational and skill-building prospects of the Mood Walks approach. As well, 42% of Mood Walks hikes took place in Ontario’s conservation areas.

Andrea Town and Scott MitchellAndrea Town, Mood Walks program manager during its pilot year, summarized the program’s impacts on mental health agencies, partners, and participants. She reported how being involved in delivering Mood Walks programs improved staff connection to clients and strengthened a health-promoting culture within agencies, among other findings. Partners reported that their own awareness of nature’s influence on mental health was increased, and that being involved in Mood Walks strengthened their ties to community. Participants, who assessed their mood and energy levels before and after every walk, reported positive changes — increased happiness, reduced anxiety, and more energy. Further, 95% of participants agreed that they had achieved or somewhat achieved the personal goals they set during their Mood Walks experience.

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In the morning’s second half, a panel featured the voices of program managers and participants from three vibrant Mood Walks groups discussing the specifics of their own program experience. Rebecca Thompson and participant Hendrik Strating from Homewood Health Centre, Melissa Moreau and participant Rose Kozai from Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care, and Bob Dhillon with participant Melode Luce from CMHA Elgin, discussed how they created and delivered their groups, making reference to the challenges and solutions they found to successfully continue with the program. The generous personal perspectives shared by participants in the groups were moving and deeply informing.

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Breakout Groups

A focus of the day was to share knowledge about both successes and barriers to starting and sustaining Mood Walks groups, and to generate feedback on possible solutions to barriers for the future development of the program. Toward that end, breakout groups took place around the auditorium’s periphery, with a series of five questions posed for group response. See the Summary of Breakout Group Responses, along with insightful points for improved delivery and implementation by Hike Ontario’s Tom Friesen (Best Practices for Success with Mood Walks Groups and Advice for Hike Club Leaders) and Bill Mungall (Ideas to Boost Participation).

Aboriginal Lunch

Before a traditional Aboriginal lunch including venison stew, three sisters stew, wild rice casserole, dandelion salad bannock, and sweetgrass tea, traditional Aboriginal chef Johl Ringuette of NishDish Catering gave a talk on the Indigenous connections between health and land, sharing traditional meanings and importance of ingredients in the meal.

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In the afternoon, Mood Walks presented four perspectives on related ecohealth initiatives. Our speakers talked about the benefits to mental and overall health of being in nature, echoing the core values of the Mood Walks program and providing insights into the successes of their own nature-related program approaches.

Bill Kilburn, leader of the Ontario-wide Back to Nature Network, framed his talk with a general lifestyle advisory: “Walk in nature every day.” Pointing out how all members of the public experience the mood-lifting effects of walking in natural spaces, Bill underlined the importance to the holistic health of children of connecting with the sensory stimulation of being in natural environments. Flagging the ten-year anniversary of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, in which Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder,” Bill stressed the need to develop outdoor educational programs that reverse the syndrome’s effects. He observed that, when surveyed, kids themselves report preferring to walk or bike to school over being driven, and playing with friends outdoors over sedentary digital pastimes indoors. Citing the cultural norms of previous generations, he suggested that children be returned to a wider radius of walking and playing activities outdoors, and given access to a broader range of natural spaces. He emphasized the important link between children’s familiarity with nature and their identification with environmental stewardship later in life.

Aryne Sheppard of the David Suzuki Foundation highlighted the key improvements to physical, mental and social health that result from being active in natural greenspace. Aryne discussed the 30×30 Nature Challenge, which encourages workplace and school communities to register to take up a half-hour-daily outdoor practice for the month of May. She previewed one of their new advertising spots (spinning the phrase “Nature is calling” into a campaign inviting people to increase their time spent in greenspace), and let us know about the new online resource 30×30.davidsuzuki.org, which provides infographics, narrative information and toolkits for broad public use. Much of the research used by the Suzuki Foundation aligns with the ideas that have brought Mood Walks into being as a program of special significance for people living with mental health challenges.

Global Director of Jane’s Walk Denise Pinto gave an engaging talk on how her program, which is 90% volunteer run, considers how natural spaces coexist with urban development in city and town environments, producing diverse and complex social possibilities for outdoor activity and integrated community building. Offering the idea that walking is an “indicator activity” — “If you look for where people are walking, you will find a safe and social space” — Denise also located herself as an urban architect who immigrated to Toronto in the 1980s and initially experienced a fear of the city’s ravine spaces. Named after Jane Jacobs, Jane’s Walk creates opportunities for people to offer free walking group experiences in their own neighbourhoods, creating route ambassadors who introduce others to favourite spaces in the city. In many cases the routes go into parts of the city that are lesser known, increasing people’s access to the city and creating new social opportunities for walk participants. Denise discussed ways that Jane’s Walk invites participation from the general public, for example, an invitation to “Tell us a city secret.” She showed photographs of Jane’s Walks occurring all over the world, including the Walking School Bus initiative, where children join up along walking routes to school led by a local parent or community member, instead of being transported. Her talk highlighted the significance to physical, mental and social health of walking together in urban greenspaces of all sorts. The next Jane’s Walk festival in Toronto is May 1-3, 2015 (janeswalk.org).

Finally, Education Director and Principal Robert Wallis of Outward Bound Canada discussed the OBC approach to creating safe and transformative group wilderness experiences since 1969. He framed his comments with the fact that, contrary to expectation, it is people who are less confident in forest and nature spaces who seek out the guided programs run by OBC. The wilderness excursions then are unfamilar groups of people in unfamiliar spaces, where skill building and trust building grow hand in hand. Robert talked about the dynamics of their courses that run from one to three weeks, and described the “solo” where course participants are challenged with a direct experience of being alone in nature while course instructors offer support and oversight. Rob also talked about OBC’s new programs that set youth-at-risk participants into relationship with Toronto’s urban green spaces, parks and ravines, extending the Summit’s conversation about the benefits of making natural environments of many kinds available to people who are less familiar with being in nature, increasing mental, physical and social health.

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Through these four presentations, Mood Walks Summit attendees were able to encounter a wide range of organizations and local and provincial program initiatives that are deeply engaged in like-minded work connecting mental wellness and the green lift of being in nature. The possibility of new partnerships was met by excellent information, thoughtful motivations for creating outdoor activity programs that foreground accessibility, diversity and inclusivity, and a general sense among all in attendance that the work of Mood Walks is profoundly important to sustain and to expand.

IMG_0844.JPGAttendee John Fisher, Park Superintendent at Wasaga Beach Provincial Park, provided a brief announcement about the upcoming Healthy Parks Healthy People celebration on July 17, 2015, when there will be no charge for day use entry to any provincial park in Ontario. As part of the celebration, hike leaders will be offering Mood Walks in selected parks across the province — watch the Ontario Parks website for details.

Experiential Workshop: Nature Sounds and Deep Listening

The afternoon was rounded out by a guided workshop on deep listening, where facilitator Anne Bourne asked people to send single sounds around a circle formed in the room, to walk in tandem creating an environment of varied personal sounds, and to become mindful about the sounds in one’s own body as a connector to others.

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Recording the Day

 Erica Bota, ThinkLink GraphicsThroughout the day, graphic recorder Erica Bota of ThinkLink Graphics produced large-scale hand-drawn “notes” on the content, fascinating all present at her gradual translation of the many ideas and perspectives shared at the Summit into visual drawings that both summarized and particularized the ways that Mood Walks fulfils its mandate to improve mental, physical and social health by bringing people into closer relationship with nature.

Video director and editor Becky Fong collected short interviews over the day with a range of Mood Walks presenters and participants.

The Summit made an impact on social media as well, with an estimated 264,021 impressions by 100 Twitter mentions by 39 users. CMHA Ontario live-tweeted the morning session, and Summit attendees Farah Mawani, Conservation Ontario, Denise Pinto and others contributed over the day to extending the reach of the Summit. See the conversation at twitter.com/hashtag/MoodWalks.

CTV Toronto health reporter Pauline Chan visited the Mood Walks Summit and interviewed Mood Walks participants and partners about their experiences. Check out the full interview on the CTV Toronto website: Lifetime: Improving mental well-being with a walk (March 31, 2015).

Photographer Clea Christakos-Gee captured the day’s activities in a lively collection of still images.

Feedback Survey

Attendees at the Summit generously reported finding the day’s sessions useful, with an overall rating for the day of “Good” (40%) or “Excellent” (60%). Respondents confirmed they intend to share knowledge gleaned over the day with friends, colleagues and their community of practice. Our venue, YWCA Elm Centre, as well as catering by Accidental Caterer and NishDish Catering received rave reviews. Attendees expressed enthusiasm for future Summits with more break-out group and discussion time, as well as great interest in continuing relationships with partners and other Mood Walks program presenters. See Mood Walks Summit Feedback Survey.

Conclusion

By integrating varied perspectives on the vital health lifts of being in natural and urban green space, the Summit was a networking opportunity among existing Mood Walk groups and an exciting knowledge generator for future CMHA Ontario initiatives connecting mental health, physical activity and nature’s “green lift.”


Presentations and Resources

Acknowledgements

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Mood Walks Summit, including our presenters, partners, recorders, staff (Elham and Jenna), volunteers (Zephyr and Elliot), participants and especially our conference organizer, Margaret Christakos. May the forest be with you!

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