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A growing body of research shows a connection between people’s access to nature and their physical and mental health.

Those health benefits hold true in spaces filled with trees, around water and even in small urban pockets of greenery.

Norfolk’s Elizabeth River Trail has it all, said Ashley Cilenti, outreach programs coordinator for the M. Foscue Brock Institute for Community and Global Health at Eastern Virginia Medical School.

A new Walk and Talk series on sections of the more than 10-mile-long trail aims to capitalize on that.

The Mentally Healthy Norfolk Collaborative, a partnership including EVMS, is hosting the walks on the Elizabeth River Trail to connect people to resources and boost their mental health. 

Cilenti said the group was looking for a way to prompt conversations on the topic but in an enjoyable context.

“It’s easy not to notice if you are not currently experiencing something with mental health or you don’t know someone who’s experiencing a mental health challenge and you’re not seeing that every day,” Cilenti said. 

“But the reality is that a lot of people are going through challenges or will go through a challenge in their life.”

Mental health issues have been on the rise nationwide, even before the pandemic but also exacerbated by it. Virginia’s no exception.

More than 1.1 million adults in Virginia have a mental health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness in 2021.That’s more than four times Richmond’s population.

There are several barriers for people getting help.

Of 382,000 adults in Virginia who did not receive mental health care when they needed it, almost half said it was because of cost, according to NAMI’s 2021 report.

The care is often too expensive out of pocket or out of reach for those who have insurance. Available providers could be out of network.

There are also just not enough mental health clinicians to meet surging needs, Cilenti said.

Kindra Greene, ERT’s executive director, said officials chose specific locations along the trail that are close to public transportation, to make the Walk and Talks easier to access.

EVMS and other partners with the Mentally Healthy Norfolk Collaborative plan to set up informational stations along the path while people do a self-guided walk. Some spots will include meditation and yoga.

“Being able to provide just opportunities to bring people to the trail and to specifically talk about mental health, we are not going to shy away from that,” Greene said. “It’s not something that should be stigmatized.”

The trail organization first tried the concept in 2020 during the height of the pandemic. 

They signed onto a national program called Prescribe a Trail, which aimed to connect mental health clinicians with those experiencing issues. But no one showed up.

Greene hopes the new program, boosted by local partnerships, attracts more people.

The trail’s use numbers have more than doubled in recent years.

“It went from being a hidden gem during COVID to being like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is the place to be,’” Greene said.

The first “Walk and Talk” is on March 25, 10 a.m. to noon, and does not require registration. It will start at the new Water Street Open Space just west of Harbor Park in Norfolk, and end at The Yard at Waterside with additional activities.

Mentally Healthy Hampton Roads has a resource guide on its website. Anyone experiencing a mental health emergency can call the local crisis hotline at 757-656-7755.