Let’s Talk: Depression and Leisure

Depression and Leisure

Today, in Canada, it’s Bell Let’s Talk Day. Bell is a communications company and is planning to donate 5 cents today for every text and mobile phone call a Bell Mobile customer makes and for every tweet (#BellLetsTalk) and facebook share of their campaign message. Canadians are prompted to join the conversation about mental health. So today, I’m talking about mental health. In particular, I want to discuss the interactions between depression and leisure.

Research by the Public Health Agency of Canada (2006) found that approximately 12% of Canadians experience depression, 4.8% experience a major depressive episode, and rates of depression are higher among women than men (at a ratio of 2:1). In addition, 50% of those who experience a major depression will experience a second bout at some point in their lives.

I am a Canadian who contributes to these statistics. Not only have I experienced depression, I also suffer from anxiety. Throughout the years, leisure has played a critical role in my management of these mental illnesses.

To begin, leisure can be helpful in diagnosing depression. Among other things (see other symptoms here), the loss of interest or pleasure in usually enjoyed leisure activities is one of the symptoms of depression. Withdrawing from family and friends is another. These changes in enjoyment of leisure or avoidance of leisure can be indicators of depression. If you notice your own loss of interest in pleasurable activities or notice family members avoiding family events or invitations to spend time with friends or not participating in activities that normally were loved and enjoyed, these would be changes to monitor.

Leisure may also help to protect individuals from experiencing depression or the degree to which the symptoms are experienced (called buffering). And as research has shown, for many, leisure is used as a way to cope with the depression they experience (Fullagar, 2012; Nimrod, Kleiber, & Berdychevsk, 2012).

Protecting Your Leisure, Protecting Your Mental Health

Leisure can protect individuals from, or act as a buffer to the stresses they experience and the potential negative impacts those stresses can have on people’s health and well-being. Iso-Ahola and Coleman (1993) argued that: 1) the social nature of leisure participation and the opportunities for friendship and support; and 2) the opportunity for control and feelings of competence (self-determination) that are associated with leisure activities  can both help with protecting against stress. Those who are able to tap into personal and social resources available through leisure activities may protect from depression or contribute to a depressive episode being less serious.

There is considerable research pointing to the benefits of physical activity and depression in preventing and managing depression (Daley, 2008). Other activities like playing cards, watching television, and meditation can also help distract or give the mind a break from negative thoughts (Folkman, 2008).

Understanding the benefits that leisure can provide and the specific types of leisure activities that could be particularly helpful in certain situations (e.g., physical activity for preventing depression) is an important step in using leisure as a resource to protect your mental health – protect you from depression or a major depressive episode. If, however, there is a lack of time available for leisure in one’s life, it is difficult to use it as a resource. Therefore, protecting your leisure time or making it a priority by carving out leisure time is as important as understanding the benefits available.

One of the hard lessons I’ve learned in my working life is that my workplace is not going to protect my mental health. Don’t get me wrong, I work with good people and I have health benefits, but similar to many other Canadians in other work environments, I have experienced increases in my workload and a reduction in resources to do my job. The result is often longer hours, more stressful conditions under which to complete the extra work, and less personal leisure time available. As workload increases, there are concerns expressed about people getting burned out (i.e., tired, exhausted, losing motivation) or having to sacrifice productivity in one area to complete extra work in another. There never seems to be any discussion specifically about the impact on people’s leisure or their mental health (two things I see as closely connected). I’ve learned that it is up to me to say “no” and “I’ve done my part” and “I’m doing my share” and set realistic, achievable work-related goals so that my work life doesn’t completely take over the time I have available for leisure.

There may be those who have stressful family circumstances. Setting boundaries with others (e.g., family and friends), while perhaps more difficult than setting boundaries at work, may also be important especially if your care for others leaves you with little time or energy for yourself. When you protect your leisure time and are able to engage in leisure pursuits, you are protecting, managing, and perhaps even improving your mental health.

Coping with Depression Through Leisure

A fairly recent research article highlighted some of the ways in which individuals living with depression benefited from leisure (Nimrod et al., 2012). Particular activities such as exercise, yoga, outdoor recreation, and social interaction, were identified by individuals who were part of an on-line communities of individuals with depression as beneficial for coping. Leisure activities were found by some individuals to enhance their mood and help them to feel better about themselves (e.g., improve self-confidence or self-esteem). Some individuals used leisure (e.g., creative activities and social leisure) as a way to release their emotions and found this helpful. For others, involvement in leisure activities provided a sense of purpose or accomplishment and that sense of purpose was key in reducing their feelings of misery. A common theme – individuals experiencing depression perceived that activities that were related to the their interests could provide positive effects in helping them cope with depression.

Not all leisure activities are created equal when it comes to coping with depression, however.

Unfortunately, some individuals engage in leisure activities that are detrimental to their health to cope with depression. For example, drinking alcohol, using drugs, gambling, smoking, shopping compulsively, and overusing media are all activities people can use to cope with depression. These leisure activities could be dangerous to one’s physical or psychological health…and to one’s pocketbook. The use of these leisure activities tended to be viewed as strategies to avoid “challenging and problematic situations” (Nimrod et al., 2012, p. 432) and were perceived as problematic behaviors that would not lead to resolving the depression.

As Nimrod et al. (2012) discuss, those who intentionally engage in healthy uses of leisure for coping benefit from “durable rewards. It may reduce stress and provide relief and even improvement in one’s condition. The unhealthy use [of leisure] often provides immediate relief, but it may be harmful in the long term” (p. 442).

Need for Understanding and Education about the Role of Leisure

One of the things that is particularly unfortunate about engaging in leisure as part of managing depression or any other mental illness is public perception. In particular, those on medical leave who are “caught” bowling or taking a vacation often face judgement. I’ve witnessed the judgement of others – “If she’s well enough to go on vacation, she must be well enough to be at work.” Because of this judgement, many people feel the need to “hide” (or are even expected to hide) these experiences or not discuss them. They may not feel safe talking about how great it felt to go to a movie or a concert to take their mind off things or how relaxing it was to take a week away at a cottage or how volunteering their time gave them a sense of purpose. And so the isolation continues and opportunities for awareness and education are stifled.

At every opportunity I have, I speak up against those attitudes which seem to come mainly from lack of understanding of the complexity of depression. I try to help others understand that leisure activities and experiences are effective ways to manage one’s mental health. I am bothered when others expect those with mental illnesses to fade into the shadows – to quietly recover or to only discuss medical therapies (e.g., medication, talk therapy). However, it is heartening to read that in Nimrod et al.’s (2012) study, members of online communities offered a “place” where those experiencing depression could receive support, encouragement, and recommendations in terms of leisure as a coping strategy. My hope is that over time, members of non-online communities who are not experiencing depression will become more aware of the benefits and value of leisure and provide similar support and encouragement.

For those who cannot afford leisure activities, it is important that other advocate for them. Not everyone who experiences depression can afford to take yoga classes, go to movies, or engage in other pursuits that may help them to cope with depression. Some may not even be able to access on-line communities. Highlighting the benefits of leisure pursuits for mental health service providers and pushing for all individuals to have access to recreation and leisure opportunities is important work toward helping protect people from experiencing depression and offering those who experience it non-medical means of coping and managing.

But this only happens if we talk.

References and Further Reading:

Daley, A. (2008). Exercise and depression: a review of reviews. Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings, 15(2), 140-147.

Folkman, S. (2008). The case for positive emotions in the stress process. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 21(1), 3-14.

Fullagar, S. (2008). Leisure practices as counter-depressants: Emotion-work and emotion-play within women’s recovery from depression. Leisure Sciences, 30(1), 35-52.

Nimrod, G., Kleiber, D. A., & Berdychevsky, L. (2012). Leisure in coping with depression. Journal of Leisure Research, 44(4), 419-449.

Public Health Agency of Canada. (2006). The Human Face of Mental Health and Mental Illness In Canada 2006. Public Health Agency of Canada.


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3 thoughts on “Let’s Talk: Depression and Leisure

  1. […] the need to advocate for recreation and leisure (e.g., for leisure/recreation opportunities for people who have mental health issues, for children’s right to play and recreation, and for infrastructure that creates and […]


  2. […] to ending the stigma associated with mental health problems and illnesses. Last year, I wrote a post about depression and the role that leisure can play in preventing and managing it. Today, I wanted to take the opportunity on Bell Let’s […]


  3. […] age may be affecting our mental health, and have focused specifically on the interaction between depression and leisure. This year I wanted to focus attention on a recent article published by a collection of Canadian […]


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