According to certified therapeutic recreational specialist (CTRS), Corey Hickman, today’s teens are experiencing a recreational crisis. “The students I see nowadays typically engage in recreation almost exclusively from a seated position,” says Hickman, a residential life director for InnerChange, a family of treatment programs for adolescent girls and young women with emotional and behavioral issues. “Many of our students arrive addicted to video games, television, or social media,” says Hickman, “which typically means that they’re not engaged in more physical or social forms of recreation.”
Mental health professionals agree with Hickman that too little physical and/or social recreation can have significant mental-health implications for teens and can compound pre-existing emotional and psychiatric issues. “You can’t separate physical and emotional well being,” he says. Because of this, his team of therapeutic recreation specialists engineers their recreation program to be more than just fun and games. They consider recreation to be a critical treatment modality, equally as important as talk therapy and other treatment approaches for addressing adolescent emotional problems.
What’s therapeutic about recreation?
Therapeutic recreation is based on the notion that healthy forms of recreation involve opportunities for movement and identity formation, both of which are critical to emotional health for adolescents.
Physical movement, so lacking in today’s screen-obsessed adolescent and young-adult culture, helps promote blood flow, cognition, alertness, and even lymphatic function—all of which have a profound impact on emotional well being. In fact, proper lymph function is entirely dependent up physical movement. Mood, in turn, is powerfully connected to proper lymph function. Certain lymphatic disorders are linked directly to emotional dysfunction such as depression and anxiety. In addition, exercise helps cleans the body of toxins and releases mood-enhancing endorphins. It can also cue the body to produce melatonin (a powerful antioxidant and natural sleep aid) on a cycle that helps prevent and resolve sleep disturbances.
Hickman also designs recreational activities to help with identity formation which, he says, impacts a young person’s sense of self-efficacy, social competence, and self esteem. Identity formation is a critical developmental task for teens and is often disrupted in young people who are experiencing emotional problems. “Being able to say, for instance, ‘I’m a jogger,’ or ‘I’m a hiker’ or ‘I’m a volleyball player’ can be a big step toward identity formation for someone who feels a bit lost with regard to their own sense of self,” say’s Hickman. The achievement component of recreational activities—striving for excellence, competing with yourself or others, measuring results— also promotes a positive sense of identity.
With a steady stream of current research confirming the mental-health benefits of recreation, therapeutic recreation has become both a formal field of academic study and an industry unto itself. Hickman recommends that treatment programs hire or consult with a bachelor or master’s level CTRS to help design a truly effective therapeutic recreation program. “The field is improving all the time. More than ever, our young people need help in the area of healthy recreation.”