Niagara Community Observatory releases research brief on Ontario’s Mood Walks program

Brock University’s Niagara Community Observatory (NCO) has released a research brief about Mood Walks, an Ontario hiking program designed to improve the mental and physical health of people experiencing mental health difficulties and social isolation.

The NCO’s brief, titled MOOD WALKS: The role of parks and recreation in mental health promotion, examines how the program is structured and implemented by mapping out the flow of information among multi-sectoral partners in the health, and parks and recreation sectors.

“It’s important to understand how information flows between sectors because many organizations work in isolation from others and good programs and services fail to serve the full scope of intended individuals,” says Associate Professor of Recreation and Leisure Studies and brief co-author Martha Barnes.

The Mood Walks program is spearheaded by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). The Ontario program began in 2014 in collaboration with Hike Ontario, Conservation Ontario, and the Ontario Ministry of Heritage, Tourism, Culture and Sport.

“Particularly given the current context, as we are planning if and how different services will be re-opening, we need to consider how access to parks and recreation spaces and program can play an important role in promoting community health,” says Assistant Professor of Recreation and Leisure Studies and brief co-author Kyle Rich.

Barnes and Rich will be presenting their brief on Wednesday, June 17 from 9:30 to 11 a.m. Those wishing to join the online event are asked to RSVP by noon Tuesday, June 16 by e-mailing cphillips3@brocku.ca. A Microsoft Teams link will be sent to those pre-registering.

Mood Walks is structured to be both planned and delivered at the local level by social service agencies recruited into the program by the CMHA.

The authors’ research to trace the flow of information among all these groups involved a method called social network analysis (SNA), defined as being “a descriptive social science methodology that maps, measures and finds patterns in the connections between people and/or organizations.”

They used this method to identify who shared information on mental health, hiking trails, grants and/or the program in general and the pathways of where information is transmitted.  The researchers found the number of organizations sharing information about hiking trails were about three times greater than between organizations sharing information about mental health.

Health-care providers such as Niagara Region Mental Health and branches of CMHA are the main Mood Walks information providers in the network of organizations, and mostly communicate with other health-care providers.

“Unlike some networks that have a central organization that connects with all other organizations, the structure of the Mood Walks network is loose and fragmented with many organizations working independently in isolation from the larger network,” says the brief.

The research brief urges the Mood Walks network to bring everyone together “so that the full potential of the network can be reached” and function more effectively. It makes several recommendations, including:

  • Parks and recreation officials should take on the larger role of promoting community mental and physical health by engaging people to use physical spaces of parks and facilities through formal programs and casual use.
  • There needs to be greater awareness of resources within the parks and recreation sector so that more people can enjoy these resources.
  • Collaboration between the parks and recreation and the health sectors can be improved by specifically connecting with different organizations, providing training on how to build partnerships, and increasing awareness of the resources and services available.

Research has shown an array of benefits that being outdoors can have on physical, mental and emotional health, particularly in natural settings.

“Going for a walk can decrease the release of cortisol, which is also referred to as a stress hormone, which can have beneficial effects for well-being,” says Cheryl McCormick, Professor of Psychology and Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies’ Faculty of Mathematics and Science.

McCormick, along with Professor of Recreation and Leisure Studies Tim O’Connell, will be part of a panel at the virtual event on Wednesday.


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