The first time clinical counsellor Tanya Clary prescribed a Parks Canada pass for anxiety, her client seemed confused but also pleasantly surprised that getting out in nature was considered a form of therapy that she didn’t have to pay for.
Clary said her many experiences in the backwoods of northern British Columbia as a “mushroom hunter” and amateur horticulturalist have convinced her of the mood-lifting health benefits of being outdoors.
She believes giving a “prescription” of a free annual pass to national parks, historic sites and monuments provides more of a push for people to get outside and connect with nature than just telling them to go for a walk because that’s good medicine, she said.
The passes are being offered by Parks Canada through its partnership with the British Columbia Parks Foundation to allow health-care providers like doctors, nurses and therapists who have registered for the program to “prescribe” nature to patients dealing with both physical and mental health challenges.
“As somebody who is serious about nature therapy, I hope this becomes as natural and normal as somebody being told to do some mediation,” Clary said. “I think that truly getting out in nature should be on the list of prescribed treatment interventions.”
The foundation launched a program called Park Prescriptions, or PaRx, in B.C. in November 2020 and expanded it last year to Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. But the Parks Canada passes were not being offered until now as part of a three-year initiative that is expected to be available across the country.
Andy Day, CEO of the foundation, said health-care providers can prescribe passes to patients who would benefit most from connecting with nature, live close enough to national parks to access them regularly and may not be able to afford the annual discovery pass cost of $72.25.
A limited number of passes will be offered to health-care providers in each province, with those in B.C. getting 100 of them this year, Day said.
“Our role is to bring this concept of nature prescriptions to Canada and institutionalize it, then spread it within the medical community and provide them with the resources and training to be able to implement it properly.”
Health-care providers can register for the passes on the Parks Prescriptions site. The foundation mails the passes to patients.
“It will be focused on people who really need time in nature as a medical intervention for whatever ailment they have,” Day said, adding the foundation is currently working with health-care professionals in Quebec to translate its website into French.
It also expects to launch an app this year giving patients more information on places to visit, while allowing them to log time spent outside and the changes in their mood from “filling” the prescription, he said.
Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, who is also responsible for Parks Canada, called the program a “breakthrough for how we treat mental and physical health challenges.”
“(It) couldn’t come at a better time as we continue to grapple with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our lives,” he said in a written statement. “I am confident this program will quickly show its enormous value to the well-being of patients as it continues to expand throughout the country.”
Dr. Melissa Lem, a family doctor and director of the Park Prescriptions, said patients are handed a written “prescription for nature” outlining their treatment plan, like spending two hours a week outside, at least 20 minutes each time, to benefit from green time.
“There’s a huge body of evidence that supports the idea that spending time in and around nature is good for our well-being,” she said.
Similar programs exist in parts of the United Kingdom and in the United States but there is no national system for providing nature prescriptions as is the aim in Canada, Lem said.
Patients in B.C. have responded positively to the prescriptions prior to the availability of park passes, she said.
“What patients have said is that a prescription from their doctors does two things: It puts weight behind (the recommendation), that it shows we’re prioritizing it just as much as a prescription medication for their health so they’re more likely to do it, and it gives them permission to prioritize outdoor time in their everyday lifestyle.”
Over 1,100 licensed health-care providers in Canada are registered for the program, which has them log each nature prescription on the Park Prescriptions site, Lem said.
Patients are also asked to provide information on whether they have filled their prescription.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2021.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Dr. Melissa Lem’s first name was Marissa.
This content appears as provided to The Globe by the originating wire service. It has not been edited by Globe staff.