#BellLetsTalk – Community Recreation as a Context for Mental Health Recovery

bell-lets-talkIn previous years, on #BellLetsTalk day, I have highlighted leisure’s role in mental health, explored how the digital 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 scholars about the important role that community recreation plays in mental health recovery (Fenton, White, Gallant, Hutchinson, & Hamilton-Hinch, 2016).

Fenton et al. (2016) indicate that participation in community recreation activities and contexts is often an overlooked and undervalued means to support mental health recovery. Their focus is on social inclusion or participation in society/community. Individuals with mental health problems often experience social exclusion in a number of ways including being excluded from consumption activities (e.g., lack of income), production activities (e.g., employment), services (e.g., transportation, health services), social relations or social interaction (e.g., isolated networks) and political engagement (e.g., having a voice; Boardman, 2011). Therefore, a identifying ways in which community recreation can support social inclusion offers a valuable contribution to mental health recovery.

Elements of Recovery

Prior to discussing the role of community recreation in social inclusion and mental health recovery, it is important to highlight some of the common elements in recovery from mental illness. Davidson, O’Connell, Tondora, Lawless, and Evans (2005) review of the literature related to recovery offered a number of common elements including:

  • Redefining self in a way that allows individuals to re-conceptualize mental illness as simply one aspect of a multi-dimensional identity
  • Incorporating illness sees an individual accepting the limitations imposed by their illness while also discovering the possibilities for achieving various goals
  • Becoming involved in meaningful activities of one’s choice
  • Being supported by others be they family members, colleagues, or friends in ways that offer encouragement and a celebration of positive experiences, steps, or outcomes
  • Overcoming stigma often requires individuals to be resilient in the face of the social consequences and societal stigma associated with mental illness
  • Managing symptoms involves actively participating in one’s treatment and making choices that help bring symptoms under control including during difficult times or when setbacks occur.

Davidson et al. (2005) summarize the key elements by indicating that recovery as “a redefinition of one’s illness as only one aspect of a multidimensional sense of self capable of identifying, choosing, and pursuing personally meaningful goals and aspirations despite continuing to suffer the effects and side effects of mental illness” (p. 483).

Benefits of Community Recreation

Recreation can be defined as an  “experience that results from freely chosen participation in physical, social, intellectual, creative and spiritual pursuits that enhance individual and community wellbeing” (Interprovincial Sport and Recreation Council and Canadian Parks and Recreation Association, 2015, p. 4). What recreation is and includes can offer much to individuals with mental illnesses as related to some of the elements of recovery. First, recreation involves choice and thus giving individuals the opportunity to exercise control and choose meaningful activities – ones that may help with incorporating illness and with the redefining of self. Recreation activities can provide individuals with a valued identity such as musician or quilter or volunteer (Iwasaki et al., 2014) that allow them to characterize and define themselves beyond their illness. The existing evidence also suggests that community recreation is a chance for social interaction in which individuals with mental illness can develop their social skills, build their social and support networks, and feel a sense of belonging and inclusion (Fenton et al., 2017).

Recreation as a Community Arena that Supports Social Inclusion

Fenton et al. (2016) talk about community recreation as a “community arena” – a space in which individuals feel safe and supported to fully participate without being concerned about being defined by their mental illness or mental health problems. These are private and public leisure and recreation spaces in which individuals are viewed as community members, as participants, and as citizens participating in recreation rather than clients participating in therapy.  It is in these community arenas where leisure interests are explored and the development of leisure roles and identities are fostered.

It is also within the community arenas where individuals may vary their participation while still feeling and being included. This could mean rather than running as a participant on a team in the annual Run for the Cure event, an individual volunteers to help with registration or at the water station along the run. Community arenas are flexible in the opportunity offered for individuals to participate.

Working to Reduce the Barriers to Recreation

While recreation participation in community arenas can promote social inclusion of individuals with mental health problems and offer additional benefits that support recovery, Fenton et al. (2016) explain that many individuals are not able to access recreation. The symptoms of the mental health problems (e.g., depression) may interfere with participation (e.g., motivation). Individuals may not have someone to participate with (e.g., lack of social network). They may also face a number of structural barriers – lack of transportation, lack of finances, and even social barriers such as stigma or discrimination.

Stigma, in particular, has been identified as a barrier that can have more impact than the illness itself (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2012). The portrayal and perception of individuals with mental health problems as dangerous or unpredictable undermines opportunities for participation in recreation and increases the risk that these individuals will experience social exclusion (Fenton et al., 2016). With this being the case, one can hope that initiatives like “Bell Let’s Talk Day,” which strives to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness, support, both indirectly and directly, the development and expansion of community arenas in which individuals with mental illness are accepted as participants and valued as community members.

Ultimately, Fenton et al. (2016) recommend and discuss a variety of intersectoral collaboration initiatives that could work to reduce barriers to recreation and to support social inclusion of participants with mental health problems. Their key message is that recreation services must be informed by mental health sector to understand the experiences of those who live with mental illness and what a recovery-oriented model of support involves. At the same time, the mental health sector and individuals with mental illness must value the role of recreation in the recovery of individuals with mental illness. This knowledge exchange is critical to optimizing the engagement of individuals with mental illness in recreation and ensuring that they are participating in community arenas that support them as participants.


Boardman, J. (2011). Social exclusion and mental health – how people with mental health problems are disadvantaged: An overview. Mental Health and Social Inclusion, 15(3), 112-121.

Davidson, L., O’Connell, M. J., Tondora, J., Lawless, M., & Evans, A. C. (2005). Recovery in serious mental illness: A new wine or just a new bottle?. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36(5), 480-487.

Fenton, L., White, C., Gallant, K. A., Gilbert, R., Hutchinson, S., Hamilton-Hinch, B., & Lauckner, H. (2017). The benefits of recreation for the recovery and social inclusion of individuals with mental illness: an integrative review. Leisure Sciences, 39(1), 1-19.

Fenton, L., White, C., Gallant, K., Hutchinson, S., & Hamilton-Hinch, B. (2016). Recreation for mental health recovery. Leisure/Loisir, 40(3), 345-365.

Iwasaki, Y., Coyle, C., Shank, J. W., Messina, E., Porter, H., Salzer, M., … Koons, G. (2014). Role of leisure in recovery from mental illness. American Journal of Psychiatric Rehabilitation, 17(2), 147–165.

Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2012). Changing directions, changing lives. Mental
health strategy of Canada. Calgary, AB. Retrieved from http://strategy.mentalhealthcommission.ca/pdf/strategy-text-en.pdf





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