Belle Isle taps into yearning for physical, mental healing with ParkRx

Cameryn Cass
Capital News Service

Lansing — “There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.” 

Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s most celebrated Transcendentalist philosophers and writers, once went into the woods to “live deliberately.” He and so many others throughout history have escaped modern luxuries and gone back to their roots, literally, to find a sense of infinite calm and meaning. 

Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk, mystic and writer of the 1950s and 1960s, observed modern human behavior in distaste, insisting: “The city people prefer a stubborn and fabricated dream. They do not care to be a part of the night, or to be merely of the world.” 

The Upper Falls at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, September 30, 2020.

And perhaps this separation between people and the wild is a choice, but for some, it’s a socioeconomic struggle. Whether it be buying proper gear, a park pass or getting time off work, it’s not always accessible to everyone. 

“If you can’t afford to put food on your table, why would you buy a Metro Park pass?” said Michele Keller, a clinical social worker specialist in Rochester. 

Increasingly, scientists and scholars are considering natural remedies for both physical and mental healing. 

“There’s a socialization aspect of it, and serotonin levels go up when we socialize,” Keller said. “Exercising itself increases neurotransmitters like endorphins, and that’s another benefit to mental health. Seeing new experiences increases your dopamine levels, and just the rhythm of nature has a calming effect.” 

In November 2020, in a move unrelated to COVID-19, the British Columbia Parks Foundation launched Canada’s first nature-based prescription program, said Prama Rahman, the foundation’s Healthy by Nature program coordinator. 

In collaboration with Parks Canada, it provides free adult discovery passes to patients prescribed nature time, allowing them access to natural and historical sites across the country, Rahman said. 

Normally, such passes cost about $52 for visitors 18 and older.

“There’s a growing body of evidence that spending time outdoors can improve all different kinds of health conditions, and research has shown that when your doctor writes something down, it increases your motivation to actually do it,” Rahman said. 

There are now participating parks in British Columbia, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba, but the goal is to expand to all provinces by the end of the year, Rahman said. 

Similar initiatives are underway in the U.S. with an emerging link between health providers and the outdoors, said Ron Olson, the chief of Michigan’s Parks and Recreation in the Department of Natural Resources.

MI Big Green Gym was founded years ago in a collaboration between Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Michigan Recreation & Park Association, providing an inexpensive opportunity for people to get outside, Olson said.

“It’s the cheapest gym you can get — we have a recreation passport for $12,” Olson said.

Still, in comparison to Canada’s new free program, American residents pay $80 for a national park pass, and Michigan residents pay at least $12 for state park passes.

Still, partnering with ParkRx, a park prescription program that encourages folks to spend time in nature, is something the DNR is interested in pursuing, Buck said. 

“The whole purpose behind ParkRx is that these physicians could potentially prescribe nature,” said Buck. “It wouldn’t really affect us (DNR) so much — what we’re hoping is that it’d affect the health care system.” 

And with at least one state park within less than an hour’s drive of every residence in Michigan, the events, trails and solitude nature allows is wonderfully accessible, Olson said. 

The challenge is in managing two different datasets on state parks and finding a way for them to communicate with each other effectively, said Elissa Buck, a commercial services and land use program administrator at the DNR. 

“We just don’t have the staff power to monitor our site as well as ParkRx,” Buck said. 

Still, partnering with ParkRx, a park prescription program that encourages folks to spend time in nature, is something the DNR is interested in pursuing, Buck said. 

“The whole purpose behind ParkRx is that these physicians could potentially prescribe nature,” said Buck. “It wouldn’t really affect us (DNR) so much — what we’re hoping is that it’d affect the health care system.” 

The Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle, Friday, Dec. 10, 2021.

Despite the logistical challenges of partnering with such a program, Belle Isle Conservancy in Detroit recently partnered with ParkRx after seeing visitorship spike during the pandemic. 

“It’s a cool opportunity to be intentional about the way we support this community space and the way that space actually supports the community who’s using it,” said Ayo Thomas, an engagement associate at Belle Isle Conservancy. 

Thomas said the goal is to provide a natural treatment opportunity in addition to conventional medicine, not in place of it. 

And, regardless of medical status, people can go outdoors and receive the same health benefits of being in nature. 

To explain why that’s so, scientists draw on ancestral evidence to explain people’s inherent need to be part of the natural world. Additionally, time in the wild triggers a psychological response that reduces stress levels, according to an editorial published by the American Psychological Association. 

Nature brings people back to their roots, quite literally. It provides a space to be free and imaginative once again, a quality many folks have lost in the separation of humans and the wild.

But it wasn’t always that way.

“One of the first things I ask my clients is, ‘What did you enjoy doing as a kid?’ I would say 90% of them say. ‘I used to love playing outside.’ Nobody plays outside anymore,” Keller said. 

Cameryn Cass reports for Great Lakes Echo.