The power of play in improving mental health

By The Health News Team | February 5, 2024
Painter using a palette of paint

Who said health care can't be fun? It definitely wasn’t the recreational therapists at Sharp Grossmont Hospital for Behavioral Health.

These specialized therapists work with patients living with mental health disorders by using recreation to assist in mental and physical recovery. Recreational therapy, they say, puts the “fun” in “functional” by helping patients regain a sense of purpose, relieve stress and improve their overall quality of life.

Recreational therapy, a holistic approach, uses recreation and activities as a form of care for those diagnosed with a physical or psychological condition. Through different activities, a recreational therapist can work with a person to improve their cognitive, emotional, physical, social and spiritual well-being.

The recreational therapists at Sharp Grossmont Hospital for Behavioral Health work specifically with patients dealing with conditions such as depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and substance use disorders. Through leisure and recreation activities, they teach patients positive and healthy coping skills.

“Through group activities, such as fitness, creative arts and leisure education, we teach patients how to build their self-esteem and practice self-care, as well as how to manage stress and anger and improve communication skills,” says Alyssa Dorn, a recreational therapist with Sharp Grossmont.

Fun is fundamental

According to Luis “Manny” Perez, also a recreational therapist with Sharp Grossmont. recreation and work are two sides of the same coin. You can't have one without the other, he says.

“We aim to help our patients see this reality and embrace the mental rest they can find in leisure,” Perez says. “Recreational therapy is a backdoor to the psyche. It's a psychoanalytic practice that uses recreation and education to help patients alleviate and orient their minds while equipping them to address their personal obstacles.”

In short, Perez says they teach patients they need to have fun. Additionally, during group sessions, the therapists are able to engage in casual, natural conversations that give patients the chance to seek counsel and apply what they learn.

“One moment, you're facilitating physical exercises and the next moment, you're teaching anger management,” says Perez. “We help our patients learn the value of having a routine and how to take responsibility for their mental health.”

Recreational therapy in the ER

Recreational therapists are also part of the dedicated team in the Sharp Grossmont Hospital Emergency Room (ER). If patients arrive in a mental health crisis, they are moved to a specific unit within the ER called Grossmont Psychiatric Assessment and Healing (G-Path), which is dedicated to providing immediate and appropriate care. Since the ER is not intended for long-term care, patients stay for a shorter length of time in the unit to get to a point where they are mentally and emotionally stable to return home or to be admitted to the hospital for treatment.

“For patients experiencing a mental health crisis and coming to us via the emergency room, it can be a very stressful time,” says Julia Smith, a recreational therapist who works in this unique unit. “They do not have their normal means of diversion, like cell phones or television. So, I do my best to make the wait more comfortable. If I can build rapport with a patient, I can quickly assess their level of comfort and what intervention may be needed.”

Smith says that for many patients, a nonjudgemental listening ear is needed. Along with active listening, if the patient is willing, she tries to use art and card and board games to help patients stay calm and gather their thoughts. Other interventions that may be introduced are relaxation strategies, music, journaling, breathing exercises and guided relaxation.

“When someone is engaged in a no-pressure activity, it’s much easier to let your guard down and express how you are feeling,” Smith says.

A more positive life ahead

Recreational therapy can have long-lasting positive outcomes for those living with mental health conditions. Patients can experience improved concentration, independence, reduced anxiety, better mood, confidence, improved social skills and an increase in self-awareness. An added benefit may also be picking up a new hobby.

“Once they engage, either trying a new activity or working on skills they already possess, they might discover a new hobby or decide to take on an activity that they have lost through the years,” says Dorn.

However, the therapists acknowledge that seeing a positive outcome may not always be immediate. This is particularly common when working with patients dealing with mental health illness.

“In psychological illness, it is hard to see outcomes with our patients because we are at the very beginning of their mental health journey,” Smith says. “Often, once I see a patient stabilize, they are discharged and on their way.”

When she does encounter patients later, Smith says she is grateful when they share how recreational therapy helped them.

Making a long-lasting difference

Smith remembers one patient who she was able to spend a bit more time with. He was a young man admitted right before the COVID pandemic.

There was a delay in his discharge due to COVID restrictions at the facility he was transferring to for treatment. And after weeks of discharge delays, Smith noticed the patient was growing restless and hopeless. So, she introduced him to frisbee golf.

Every day, they would practice various throws and putting. Toward the end of his hospital stay, the patient shared that frisbee golf was the thing he looked forward to each day. He also enjoyed being able to work toward a goal to get better at his newfound sport.

“In most cases, recreational therapy is really about relearning to acknowledge leisure as a necessity in our life as adults,” Smith says. “Recreation is not just for when we were children.”

While it makes for a fun, less-stressful experience for patients during their stay, Smith says the goal is to plant the seed of the various tools they now have at hand.

“When they are discharged, they have the confidence and knowledge they need to continue their journey in managing their health,” she says.

Learn more about mental health services offered at Sharp; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.


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