Ontario's Minding Our Bodies Initiative

Partnering locally and provincially to promote mental and physical health

Scott Mitchell

Reprinted from "Mind-Body Connection" issue of Visions Journal, 2014, 10 (2), p. 24

Recent research suggests that healthy eating and exercise are beneficial for our mental as well as our physical health. In response to these findings, Ontario’s new Minding Our Bodies program aims to provide more healthy eating and exercise programs for people living with mental illness.

The Beehive, a consumer initiative in the northern Ontario town of Elliot Lake, launched a collective kitchen program in 2010 called Good Food, New Friends. The Beehive worked in partnership with Algoma Public Health to implement the program. Participants learned how to cook and went home with the food they prepared as a group, inspired by a sense of hope and optimism for recovery.

Start-up dollars for Good Food, New Friends, as well as training and support for program planning and evaluation, were provided by Minding Our Bodies: Healthy Eating and Physical Activity for Mental Health. Minding Our Bodies has sponsored 32 new physical activity and healthy eating programs across Ontario since 2009. This province-wide initiative is led by the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario Division (CMHA Ontario), in partnership with the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario, Ontario Public Health Association (Nutrition Resource Centre), YMCA Ontario and York University. It received funding from the Ontario government’s Healthy Communities Fund.

The objective of Minding Our Bodies is to help community mental health agencies provide more physical activity and healthy eating programs for people living with mental illness. Emerging evidence confirms that physical activity and healthy eating not only reduce the risk of developing chronic physical conditions, but they are good for our mental health too (see related resources).

Social support is a key element

Minding Our Bodies programs—walking groups, collective kitchens, community gardens and outdoor adventure clubs, for example—are offered in a group format that allows new friendships to develop. Participants gain social support and a sense of belonging, key ingredients for recovery from mental illness.

Many of these programs create opportunities for peer leaders to emerge, in a formal or informal role depending on the host organization. Some participants use their newfound confidence and acquired leadership skills to find employment or volunteer positions in the community.

Consumer leadership was encouraged in the Good Food, New Friends program in Elliot Lake. Two consumer volunteers were recruited: one brought accounting skills to assist with budgeting, and another completed peer support leadership training and helped to run the program.

Collaboration—a core strength

Creating new and sustainable partnerships is a key objective of Minding Our Bodies. Local partnerships were instrumental to the success of Good Food, New Friends. A retirement facility for seniors donated the kitchen space and covered the cost of utilities. Case workers at Ontario Works (OW), a provincial assistance program, referred clients to participate in Good Food, New Friends and provided a subsidy for OW clients if they couldn’t afford the $25 monthly fee. Local businesses contributed in-kind resources (hairnets from Tim Horton’s, for example), and guest speakers (e.g., someone from the fire department, a pharmacist and a Zumba instructor) donated their time.

Susan Roach, program manager at the Haldimand-Norfolk Resource Centre, a Minding Our Bodies pilot site, knows that partnerships are essential: “You can’t do it all [alone]. Financially you can’t; resource-wise you can’t.”

Haldimand-Norfolk Resource Centre is a consumer initiative in southwest Ontario. They created the Get Moving, Get Fit, Enjoy Life program that trains peer specialists to be physical activity leaders. A healthy lifestyle education program was developed in co-operation with the Population Health Team at the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit. Staff members from the local CMHA branch and an Assertive Community Treatment Team helped plan and deliver the program.

Facilitating the flow of good ideas

A provincial initiative can be the spark that ignites local action. And in turn, the creativity and expertise of local program leaders inspires provincial action.

With our partners, both local and provincial, CMHA Ontario builds communities of practice to enable the exchange of knowledge. We know we’re succeeding when we see mental health service providers actively engaged in collaborative relationships—with public health agencies, community centres, consumer initiatives, housing providers, hospitals, colleges and universities, and other organizations—that continue to flourish long after we’ve stepped back from our role as a catalyst.

Since the inception of Minding Our Bodies, all program leaders have been invited to share their success stories and lessons learned. This has been done through evaluation case studies, newsletters and a series of one-day knowledge exchange forums. These forums were open to other community organizations and potential partners, including fitness instructors and nutrition professionals.

Minding Our Bodies has created a variety of resources, including planning toolkits, a directory of programs, literature reviews, environmental scans, newsletters, a resource database and evaluation reports. These are available, along with presentation slides from the day-long forums, on the project website at www.mindingourbodies.ca.

Some new mental health projects

Several new projects have emerged from the Minding Our Bodies initiative. They build on lessons learned and nourish our continuing partnerships.

Parks and Recreation Ontario and YMCA Ontario are collaborating once again with CMHA Ontario to develop mental health accessibility training for physical activity providers. People living with mental illness often face barriers that prevent them from accessing physical activity programs. The training will focus on improving customer service by increasing mental health literacy and reducing stigma. An eLearning module for physical activity managers and front-line staff will be launched in fall 2014. The project is sponsored by the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario to help meet the objectives of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. For details, visit www.enablingminds.ca.

CMHA Ontario recently collaborated with Dietitians of Canada (a Minding Our Bodies advisory committee member) and the University of British Columbia to develop a research agenda around nutrition and mental health. Canadian Institutes of Health Research provided funding. Stakeholders across Canada—including people with lived experience, dietitians, mental health service providers, researchers and policy makers—have been consulted through surveys, interviews and a face-to-face workshop. The results will be published on the CMHA Ontario website (ontario.cmha.ca) in fall 2014.

In 2013, CMHA Ontario started a new partnership with Conservation Ontario and Hike Ontario to create the Mood Walks program. The objective is to support the launch of new walking groups for older adults with mental illness, and draw attention to the mental health benefits of spending time in nature. More than 20 groups are now in full swing. A comprehensive planning guide to save time for busy program managers was printed and distributed to all group leaders. An electronic version of the guide, including templates and evaluation tools, is also available to participating agencies (visit www.moodwalks.ca).

Bill Mungall, past president of the Guelph Hiking Trail Club and a Mood Walks volunteer, shared the following observation: “Participants [of Mood Walks] find nature uplifting, and sharing it with others rewarding. There is lots of mutual support through rubbing shoulders on a hike, in overcoming minor obstacles, in pointing out features of interest, and in communicating about other hiking opportunities. Participants are effusive in their thanks at the end of the hike, and also at what they see or hear during the hike—the sense of wonder is a delight to see.” For more information, visit www.moodwalks.ca.

A last word

None of these province-wide initiatives would have been launched without financial incentives provided by government. And none would succeed without strong partnerships to sustain them. Our challenge now is to build on our success by expanding our network of partners, within Ontario and across Canada, to share what we’ve learned and to inspire even greater collaboration.

 
About the author
Scott is the Director of Knowledge Transfer at Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario
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