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The 2020 NRPA Annual Conference looked very different compared to past years. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has changed the majority of our daily lives — with our new normal consisting of virtual learning, video chatting, teleworking and physical distancing. With these changes come challenges, often in the form of isolation, and feelings of depression and sadness, anxiety and worry, and more. With more and more restrictions and no clear end in sight, it’s no surprise that mental health has become a large focus.
NRPA recognized this challenge and intentionally programmed specific sessions for this year’s virtual conference, NRPA Virtual, regarding how park and recreation professionals can play a role in the mental health and well-being of their community.
Supporting Children’s Mental and Physical Health
It’s a “new day” for learning, from staggered schedules to hybrid learning and virtual education. The Afterschool Alliance (afterschoolalliance.org) and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (AHG) (healthiergeneration.org) shared an easy-to-use blueprint to help recreation agencies support the social, emotional and academic development of children. The speakers also provided ideas for supportive community partnerships and tangible resources that can be shared with staff and caregivers.
The Blueprint for How Afterschool Programs and Community Partners Can Help (tinyurl.com/y4cjm2tx) is broken into five main building blocks, with equity embedded into each category:
- School-Community Partnerships
- Commitment to Active and Engaged Learning
- Family Engagement
- Intentional Programming
- Health and Well-Being
Resources also were shared to help support all aspects of health and well-being during times of uncertainty and change:
- NRPA’s Commit to Health campaign (nrpa.org/CommitToHealth)
- Afterschool Alliance’s Protective factor issue brief (tinyurl.com/y2ozjljh)
- AHG’s Self-Care Sunday video series (tinyurl.com/y6z7e9dl)
- NRPA’s vision for parks and recreation as community nutrition hubs (tinyurl.com/yx8qvyk2)
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Healthy at Home initiative (tinyurl.com/yyjn7tzn)
- Greater Good Science Center’s mindfulness exercises: Loving Kindness Meditation (tinyurl.com/ybub3qao)
A Comprehensive Response to the Substance Use Crisis
NRPA has been monitoring the opioid epidemic’s impact on P&R professionals and the communities they serve. In response, NRPA created a Community of Practice (CoP) that specifically addresses substance use. The CoP examined two main categories specific to parks: (1) prevention and (2) operations/facility management; the CoP developed a summary report (tinyurl.com/yyezy37c) highlighting overarching themes and lessons learned, data collected from agencies, future recommendations, and case studies exemplifying various response strategies.
Response strategies specific to parks and recreation are grouped into three categories:
- Responding to substance use in parks and recreation
- Supporting community members impacted by substance use
- Focusing efforts using a prevention lens
Why Parks and Recreation Are Key Factors in the Support of Mental Health Initiatives
Mental health issues throughout the United States continue to rise. The park and recreation field can offer services and support for those experiencing challenges. This session provided an overview about the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) (nami.org) and its efforts in providing resources and support nationwide. Best practices for developing partnerships and supporting emotional, physical and mental health of community members also were shared.
Partnership Building and Incentive-Based Approach: Washington state is working on a Park Rx pilot program, testing an incentive-based approach to connect public health, parks and recreation, and medical insurance providers. In theory, an agency, state healthcare provider and an insurer will be connected and develop agreements, enabling insurers to offer employees incentives for participating in a wellness program. Employees would receive discounts on health insurance in exchange for outdoor park and recreation use and physical activity.
Mental Health and Self-Care Walks: Stark County Parks in Ohio is partnering with county mental health, addiction and recovery services to offer one-mile walks on different types of surfaces and in various habitats, while incorporating activities related to mental health and self-care, such as 10 strategies that promote relaxation, focus, awareness, reflection, presence, etc.
Crisis Support and Trauma: Chicago Park District created a crisis support manager position to assist staff during and/or after a crisis or traumatic event, while also providing proactive training and support tools to employees. The park district also has helped the city become trauma and mental health-informed by partnering with NAMI to offer various trainings and workshops.
Physically Distant, Socially Connected
The goal of this session was to inspire and educate park and recreation professionals during COVID-19 with ways to connect through virtual recreation options serving youth and adults with disabilities. Staff from Seattle (Washington) Parks and Recreation examined successful virtual recreation trends and strategies to plan for future shifts in an increasingly unpredictable time. Creative solutions to combat barriers to technology access also were shared.
Many people with developmental disabilities have lost access to caregivers and service. This includes reduced access to schooling and therapies, changes to transportation arrangements, and lack of access to personal protective equipment (PPE). To combat this, Seattle Parks and Recreation created various ways to continue providing support and connection in a more virtual and physically distant manner, while also proving how essential parks and recreation truly are:
- Created mass mailings for program participants and included independent activities, arts, crafts, exercises, recipes, etc.
- Used social media more intentionally
- Created a video library and various campaigns and initiatives to continue providing recreational services to the community
Lauren Kiefert is a Program Specialist at NRPA (email@example.com).