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A comprehensive response to this public health crisis for park and recreation professionals
As providers of and connection points to public health services, parks and recreation plays a vital role in the 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 use and related issues. As a result, local agencies are challenged with finding effective and sustainable ways to address the ongoing public health crisis. With substance use continuing to impact communities and individuals across all races, classes, geographies and identities, the park and recreation field has a responsibility to respond to and be part of the solution.
A Community of Practice
In spring 2019, NRPA created a Community of Practice (CoP) specifically addressing substance use disorder (SUD), with a focus on opioids. The CoP concentrated on two main aspects of substance use: prevention and operations/safety. The prevention component facilitated conversations and learning opportunities for park and recreation professionals on conducting staff training, identifying risk factors, building protective factors, understanding adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), recognizing signs of SUD and addressing associated stigmas. The operations/safety side examined park maintenance, staff safety, sharps and drug paraphernalia cleanup, partnerships with law enforcement and public health agents, and response to overdose situations on managed properties.
The report, titled Parks and Recreation: A Comprehensive Response to the Substance Use Crisis, draws on lessons learned through the CoP, data collected from agencies across the country, and recommendations from leading public health organizations and the federal government. It provides response strategies and recommendations for park and recreation professionals. The report highlights a variety of tactics and levels of response that focus on prevention, operations and maintenance, public safety, community education, partnership building, staff training, development and more. Strategies are rooted in evidence-based best practices and solutions.
Response strategies are grouped into three overarching themes:
- Responding to Substance Use in Parks and Recreation – This section explores how park and recreation professionals can respond to common challenges associated with substance use taking place on property owned by the agency. It includes recommendations on drug and paraphernalia disposal and staff safety, facility modifications, naloxone training — and developing partnerships with harm reduction groups, public health organizations and law enforcement entities.
- Supporting Community Members Impacted by Substance Use – This section outlines how park and recreation professionals can support community members — including staff and youth — who may be directly or indirectly impacted by substance use or who are at high risk for SUD. Covered in this section is the importance of addressing and breaking down the stigma of substance use, developing referral systems with treatment providers and providing resources to community members, training staff on being trauma-informed, offering tailored programming for impacted community members, and encouraging a holistic focus on health and wellness to include mindfulness and self-care.
- Focusing Efforts on a Prevention Lens – This section discusses how park and recreation professionals can focus efforts on prevention to reduce the risk of SUD, identify early warning signs and stop the generational impact of substance use. Topics covered include identifying risk factors and understanding ACEs, building protective factors around community members, providing community education, training staff on mental health first aid, and changing policies and improving environments to support positive behavioral health outcomes.
The report shares the experiences of five park agencies responding to substance use and mental health disorders. These case studies provide real-world examples of the strategies and solutions discussed, ranging from installing sharps disposal kiosks in parks to providing community education, as well as offering prevention and awareness training.
While we have learned a great deal of information related to substance use on park grounds and in communities, there is still so much to be discovered. Substance use is an ever-changing issue with trends evolving at a rapid rate. Park and recreation professionals are addressing and responding to a wide array of substance use challenges. We hope this report provides applicable strategies and best practices for all levels of response, based on the specific needs and infrastructure of your individual communities. NRPA will be developing supplemental resources to complement this report, covering topics such as partnerships, asset building, mental health and homelessness.
To share how your agency is responding to substance use and mental health disorders in your community, please email NRPA Program Specialist Lauren Kiefert.
Lauren Kiefert is a Program Specialist at NRPA.