Wilderness wellness: How recreation therapy supports patient mental health

Robert Baird, professional practice leader, recreation therapy (left) and Jacqueline Connors, recreation therapist (right) at Martinique Beach
Robert Baird, professional practice leader, recreation therapy (left) and Jacqueline Connors, recreation therapist (right) at Martinique Beach.

“Providing purpose in life” is how Robert Baird, professional practice leader for recreation therapy in Nova Scotia Health’s Central Zone (Mental Health and Addictions Program) describes his profession. 

Based in the Abbie J. Lane Memorial Building, Baird and the recreation therapy team work with clients receiving acute psychiatric care. 

“One of the strengths we have here at the Abbie is our team atmosphere,” said Baird. 

Working with recreation therapist Jacqueline Connors and recreation therapy associate Angela Nagillah, the team runs a variety of programs to teach clients about the kinds of leisure activities they can benefit from after leaving hospital. 

Examples of these programs include: relationship groups, therapeutic art, music lessons, cooking groups and physical activity groups. 

While Baird has worked in a variety of hospital settings around the world, his work with the Mental Health and Addictions team at Nova Scotia Health is unique. 

“We work less on functional skills like wheelchair usage, and more on things like relationship building, overcoming anxiety and reducing social isolation,” said Baird. 

These concerns are not always easy to address, he adds. But over the years, the recreation therapy team has found creative ways to engage clients and help them on their path to recovery. One way they’ve done this is through their Wilderness Wellness program. 

Wilderness Wellness, a two-night camping trip to Musquodobit Harbour’s Camp Kanada, is “not something you’d expect to do when coming to the hospital,” said Baird. But it is consistently one of the most effective and impactful recreation therapy experiences clients have. 

“When we came up with the idea, we had a few people thinking ‘I don’t know about this,’” said Baird. 

But the recreation therapy team’s passion for patient care and attention to detail allowed them to convince those around them that Wilderness Wellness was a great idea. 

They haven’t looked back. 

With more than 25 successful trips over 10 years, the team has witnessed first-hand the benefits that Wilderness Wellness brings to clients. 

The camping trips, which take place three times per year in the summer, winter, and fall are funded by the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia’s Change of Scenery grant program. 

These trips are also a great learning opportunity for students, notes Baird who mentors recreation therapy interns as part of his practice. 

In addition to coordinating the logistics, planning activities and packing for the trip, recreation therapy students attend Wilderness Wellness alongside 10 clients, a nurse and recreation therapy staff. 

“We do all kinds of activities at camp” said Baird. From hiking on the nearby Musquodobit Trailway, taking trips to Martinique Beach and offering group guitar lessons at the camp lodge, there is an abundance of opportunities for clients to explore their interests and learn new skills. 

“There’s a lot of empowerment that goes on at camp,” said Baird, adding “we get to see how people react to a different, non-hospital environment.” 

When asked about his favourite camp memories, Baird noted, “my favourite moment every time is just getting to know people better.”

That’s exactly what the program aims to do – offer clients a chance to develop connections, skills and relationships that will stay with them after they leave the hospital.  

“I learned how to get past my shyness,” said one client after experiencing the Wilderness Wellness program, adding “I learned how to let go more and allow myself to enjoy the little things.”

Clients also noted that the camp atmosphere is part of what makes Wilderness Wellness special. 

“The non-restrictive environment helps gain hope and reassurance,” said one client. Another added that “great time with friends equals great treatment.”

Although the Wilderness Wellness program is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mental Health and Addictions recreation therapy team is looking forward to starting it up again as soon as they can. 

In the meantime, they are continuing to engage clients in a variety of recreation therapy programs – making creative adaptations to meet public health guidelines.