An Epidemic: How Parks and Recreation Can Play a Role in Addressing Substance Use and Mental Health Disorders

By Lauren Kiefert | Posted on August 6, 2020

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Every day, more than 100 people in the United States die as a result of an opioid-related overdose. Serving as providers of and connection points to public health services, parks and recreation plays a vital role in the ongoing opioid and substance use epidemic. Park and recreation leaders confront substance use on park grounds daily, with many staff on the frontlines responding to substance-related issues. Local agencies are challenged with finding effective ways to address this crisis — with levels of response based on ever-changing cultural, social, environmental and financial factors.

In addition, many people with substance use disorder (SUD) also experience mental illness — a health condition involving a change in emotion, thinking and/or behavior, which often impairs functioning in social, work and family settings. Mental illness may be present before SUD, or the use of substances may trigger or worsen a current mental health condition. In fact, about half of those experiencing a mental illness will also suffer from SUD. Given the recent challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, substance use and mental health disorders have been on the rise once again. Contributing factors include (but are not limited to):


  • Required physical distancing practices
  • Quarantine/stay-at-home orders and isolation
  • Closure of necessary resources
    • Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous
    • Rehabilitation services
    • School systems and childcare
    • Mental and physical health services (if telemedicine is not available)
  • Unemployment
  • Food insecurity
  • High demands placed on essential personnel
    • Food service and grocer industry
    • First responders
    • Healthcare workers

The above circumstances can likely result in feelings of isolation, hopelessness and uncertainty — which have the potential to lead to mental health illnesses like depression and anxiety. When these conditions are not properly addressed and treated, alternative coping mechanisms (like substance use and unhealthy behaviors) may occur — significantly impacting individuals and communities across all races, classes, geographies and identities.

To support our park and recreation leaders nationwide during this time, the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) is proud to announce the release of Parks and Recreation: A Comprehensive Response to the Substance Use Crisis. This report explores response strategies and recommendations for park and recreation professionals, highlighting a variety of tactics and levels of response that focus on prevention, operations and maintenance, public safety, community education, partnership building, staff training and development, and more. Strategies are supported by federal, state and local public health agencies and organizations and are rooted in evidence-based best practices and solutions. 

Response strategies are grouped into three overarching themes:

  1. Responding to substance use in parks and recreation
  2. Supporting community members impacted by substance use
  3. Focusing efforts on prevention

In addition, the report features five agencies’ experiences with responding to substance use. These case studies provide real-world examples of the strategies and solutions covered, ranging from installing sharps disposal kiosks in parks to providing community education, as well as prevention and awareness training.

View the Full Report


Lauren Kiefert is an NRPA Program Specialist.