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Can a National Park Prescription Improve Mental Health?

By Skye Sherman  •   June 24, 2024

In the modern age, mental health challenges are increasingly prevalent. To combat this, healthcare professionals are exploring innovative ways to improve wellness from the inside out.

Did you know that some doctors in Canada prescribe visits to parks as a way to improve mental health? Outdoor Play Canada writes, “Physicians in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario can now prescribe a Parks Canada Discovery Pass to their patients to promote physical and mental health.”

And as the Washington Post puts it, “A trip to the doctor can yield any number of recommendations, including bed rest and medicine. But as of late January, Canadian patients can be sent home with a more novel note: a prescription for a national park pass.”

In theory, this leverages the therapeutic benefits of nature to enhance mental health. The idea is grounded in the concept that natural environments can significantly impact psychological wellbeing, reduce stress, and lower the risk or prevalence of anxiety and depression while promoting overall mental health.

Read on to learn more about how national park prescriptions might be able to improve mental health.

The science behind mental health and time in nature

The relationship between nature and mental health is well documented. Have you heard of biophilia? This idea suggests that humans have an innate affinity for nature, and being in natural environments can fulfill this intrinsic need.

Go Collette shares the following facts about spending time outside is a great way to improve our mental and physical health:

● “Spending time in nature boosts memory, creativity, and work satisfaction.

● Seniors who live closer to walkable green spaces live longer.

● Spending time in nature decreases the risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

● Ninety percent of us say we’re happier when we’re outside, and stress hormones drop significantly after just 15 minutes of sitting in a forest.”

Studies have shown that spending time in natural settings can lower cortisol levels (cortisol is the stress hormone). Time in nature can also improve mood, enhance cognitive function, and increase feelings of happiness and wellbeing.

How exactly should you do it? CBC writes, “Citing a growing body of research on the health benefits of time in nature, the program recommends about two hours a week in nature, for at least 20 minutes at a time.”

Exposure to natural settings can also lead to restorative experiences, which are characterized by the recovery of cognitive functions and emotional equilibrium. These experiences can be particularly beneficial for individuals suffering from mental health issues, providing a non-pharmacological option to support traditional treatments.

Outside shares, “Physical activity does more than induce these temporary feel-good effects; It can improve depression as effectively as medication or psychotherapy. … exercise can reduce anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar, and obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms.”

Did you know that time in nature can also reduce the need for certain medications? According to CNN, “Going for a walk in a park or along a lake or a tree-lined space may reduce the need for medication for anxiety, asthma, depression, high blood pressure or insomnia … visiting nature three to four times a week was associated with 36% lower odds of using blood pressure pills, 33% lower odds of using mental health medications, and 26% lower odds of using asthma medications.”

Still, sometimes a prescription drug is necessary for mental health. Talk to your doctor about whether a drug like Rexulti or Vraylar might benefit you and your unique situation.

The nature prescription: National parks to visit for your mental health

National parks, with their vast, unspoiled landscapes, provide ideal settings for therapeutic experiences. The United States is home to some of the world’s most famous and awe-inspiring national parks, each offering unique natural features and opportunities for mental rejuvenation.

Maybe these national parks are already on your bucket list, or maybe it’s time you put them there! Your mental and emotional health could see the benefits, not to mention your physical health after going for hikes or walks.

Best of all, seniors can benefit from senior discounts to national parks. If you are a US citizen or permanent resident aged 62 years or older, there are special entrance pass options for you, including lifetime and annual Senior Pass options with the Interagency Senior Annual and Senior Lifetime Passes. You’ll be surprised how affordable it is.

Want to make a trip out of it? You can book National Park Vacation Packages with Vacations By Rail to take the hassle and headache out of planning and get the most out of your time spent.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, is renowned for its geothermal features, including the iconic Old Faithful geyser. The park’s diverse ecosystems offer visitors a chance to immerse themselves in a variety of natural settings. The park’s wildlife, including bison, elk, and grizzly bears, adds to the sense of connection with nature, and there are amazing landscapes to take in, including lush forests, expansive meadows, and craggy canyons.

A visit to Yellowstone can provide a powerful escape from the pressures of daily life. The park’s serene landscapes and the rhythmic predictability of geyser eruptions can offer a sense of stability and peace, which is particularly beneficial for those dealing with anxiety or stress.

Photo Credit: by Lukas Kloeppel, Pexels.com
Photo Credit: by Lukas Kloeppel, Pexels.com

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park, with its towering granite cliffs, majestic waterfalls, and ancient sequoias, is a natural wonder that captivates millions of visitors each year. The park’s famous landmarks, such as El Capitan and Half Dome, provide not only stunning visuals but also a profound sense of awe and inspiration.

Of course, if you’re scared of heights, you might want to avoid the more intimidating hikes available! But if you pick the right trails, hiking through Yosemite can lead to a meditative state, promoting mindfulness and reducing mental fatigue.

The act of physical exercise in such a beautiful setting further enhances the benefits of time in nature, as it is well-established that physical activity can improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Photo Credit: by Mick Haupt, Pexels.com
Photo Credit: by Mick Haupt, Pexels.com

Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon, with its immense size and intricate layers of red rock, is one of the most iconic natural landmarks in the world. The sheer scale of the canyon can evoke a sense of wonder and perspective, often leading visitors to reflect on their own lives and priorities.

The park offers numerous vantage points and trails that allow visitors to experience the canyon’s beauty and grandeur. This exposure to vast, open spaces can be particularly therapeutic for individuals feeling confined or overwhelmed by hectic, crowded urban environments.

The simplicity and majesty of the canyon can inspire a sense of tranquility and introspection, which is good for all of us.

Photo Credit: by Sarah Howell, Pexels.com
Photo Credit: by Sarah Howell, Pexels.com

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is famous for its mist-covered peaks and rich biodiversity. The park’s lush forests, cascading waterfalls, and vibrant wildflower displays create a soothing environment that invites relaxation and contemplation.

The park’s gentle, rolling terrain makes it accessible to visitors of all ages and fitness levels, providing numerous opportunities for leisurely walks, bird watching, and picnicking. It’s a great park to visit with the whole family, from the grandparents to the grandkids, and spending time with loved ones can also provide a major boost to mental health and happiness.

Relational connection and physical activity are also good for warding off cognitive decline in the elderly and aging. Plus, these simple, nature-based activities can reduce stress and promote a sense of wellbeing for all.

Photo Credit: by Wikipedia.org
Photo Credit: by Wikipedia.org

How to implement a park prescription

For a park prescription to be effective, doctors should consider individual patient needs and preferences. Factors such as physical fitness, mobility, and personal interests can influence the choice of park and the type of activities recommended.

Healthcare providers can work with patients to develop personalized plans that incorporate regular visits to natural settings, ensuring that these experiences are enjoyable and sustainable. Best of all, you don’t have to plan a special trip to a national park for a nature prescription to be effective. You might just need to start getting outside more and paying regular visits to your neighborhood or town park.

If you do plan a visit to a national park, keep in mind there are some costs associated, including park entry fees and travel fees. Senior discounts and coupons are often available, so be sure to ask before purchasing your ticket.

In addition to prescribing park visits, healthcare providers can encourage patients to engage in other activities that can enhance the therapeutic benefits of nature. These activities might include mindful walking, nature journaling, nature photography, or simply sitting quietly and observing the natural surroundings.

Integrating natural practices into your routine can help reinforce nature’s positive effects on mental health.

How to get a nature prescription from your doctor

The prescription of national park visits as a therapeutic tool for mental health is a promising approach that aligns with a growing body of research on the benefits of nature. National parks, with their diverse and breathtaking landscapes, offer ideal settings for mental rejuvenation and healing.

If you think a park prescription might be right for you, talk to your doctor about whether time in nature might be able to give your mental health a boost.

By incorporating park prescriptions into mental health care, we can harness the power of nature to support and enhance wellbeing, providing a holistic and accessible option for individuals seeking to improve their mental health.



The purpose of the above content is to raise awareness only and does not advocate treatment or diagnosis. This information should not be substituted for your physician's consultation and it should not indicate that use of the drug is safe and suitable for you or your (pet). Seek professional medical advice and treatment if you have any questions or concerns.