Running down the concrete blocks of city streets, Peter Singh found little relief from his sadness and anger.
In 2014, he cut short his university semester to return home to Surrey, B.C. to help care for his father who was dying from the unstoppable nervous system disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS or Lou Gerhig’s disease).
“I felt a lot of sadness just to watch a human who I loved very much, and had worked so hard to create a business and get it off the ground after moving to this country (from India) with nothing,” Singh told HuffPost Canada. “Someone who was an amateur bodybuilder who turned into a skeleton. It was very, very sad.”
Singh instinctively turned away from the city to nature, replacing the hard sidewalk for soft forest floor.
In those moments, running through the trees, he could forget.
“I found when I was running through forests, whether it was through the park across the street or a park a few kilometres away, I could just not think about things and be totally engaged in my surroundings,” he said.
“It’s really hard to feel like your problems are big when life is flourishing around you.”
His father died in 2014, and two months later Singh’s mother had a cancer scare. Now a second-year medical student at the University of British Columbia, Singh continues to find calmness and resiliency exploring the wilderness.
Watch: Tips for taking care of your mental health during a pandemic. Story continues below.
This week B.C. Parks Foundation formally recognized nature’s powerful health benefits by launching Canada’s first parks prescription program, called PaRx.
B.C. physicians can now prescribe patients a recommended two hours a week in nature, for 20 minutes at a time, relaxing or exercising.
“We know that deep inside when you ask someone, ‘What is your safe space, your happy space?’ nine out of 10 people are going to say somewhere outdoors,” said Singh, who helped compile research for PaRx’s website as part of a med school project.
“But sometimes we need that reminder to say, ‘Hey this is good for us.’”
Vancouver-based family Dr. Melissa Lem is the director of PaRx and said in the days after the launch, 60 doctors registered as prescribers. There’s also buzz in other provinces and territories. The PaRx team plans to expand the program across Canada next year, starting with Alberta.
“There’s huge enthusiasm for this,” said Lem, adding the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for nature prescriptions.
“Now is actually the perfect time to get our message across, both to improve the wellbeing in patients, but also to emphasize the importance of right now, more than ever, you need to spend time outside and it’s a healthy place to be.”
Prescribing nature can also benefit the environment, said Lem.
“People who are more connected to nature are more likely to protect it and kids who spend more time in nature are more likely to grow up to be environmentalists,” she said.
“The climate crisis is also happening in the background, so I think by prescribing nature, doctors will also be doing their part for the planet.”
Hundreds of studies have found people who spend a couple of hours a week in green spaces experience physical and mental health benefits, including lower chances of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Ninety per cent of people say they’re happier outside, and stress levels drop after 15 minutes, research suggests. They give their brain a rest, experience less repetitive thoughts and feel more connected to others.
Kids who spend time in nature do better at school, have more confidence and are less likely to develop psychiatric illnesses as adults.
BC Parks Foundation CEO Andy Day began working on PaRx more than two years ago, basing it off Park Rx, a similar program run by California’s Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. He’s eager for more Canadians to boost their wellbeing outside, as he has throughout his life.
“It gives me this whole sense of the poetry and beauty of the world around us when I really slow down and stop,” Day said. “I think there’s also the creativity that comes when you’re outside.”
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Canadians need these benefits, perhaps more than ever.
A recent study found “alarming levels of despair and hopelessness across Canada” during the second wave of the pandemic. The survey was conducted by the University of British Columbia and Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).
“I’m afraid that many people are in such despair they can’t see past it,” said CMHA CEO Margaret Eaton in a statement.
Ten per cent of Canadians are experiencing suicidal thoughts, compared to six per cent in the spring, and 2.5 per cent before the pandemic in 2016, said the study.
Forty per cent of survey participants reported a deterioration in their mental health since the pandemic began and feel increased anxiety, stress, loneliness, sadness and depression.
While 54 per cent of respondents said they’re exercising outdoors to cope, 20 per cent have increased their alcohol use, the researchers found. Very few, only three per cent, have turned to virtual mental health resources.
Singh, who prides himself on being mentally resilient, said he struggled with impacts of COVID-19 and social isolation. So, he turned to what’s helped in the past and recently followed a guided nature therapy session on his phone.
“I felt recharged and this state of bliss that was with me for the entire day,” he said. “It really was a powerful experience for me.”