Lauren Torok: Leisure as Mental Health Treatment

How can recreation and leisure pursuits help people with mental illness live full and engaged lives? Lauren Torok is exploring the role of leisure in the lives of individuals with mental illnesses. Her ultimate goal is to create a strengths-based therapeutic recreation treatment program.

EENet’s Bonnie Polych has developed a Student Spotlight on Lauren’s work. Student Spotlights are brief profiles of up-and-coming student researchers.

Read it below or download the PDF.

What you need to know

Lauren Torok

Lauren’s research is about discovering how recreation and leisure pursuits help people with mental illness live full and engaged lives. She wanted to explore this area further because the role of leisure in the lives of individuals with mental illnesses who are doing well has not yet been examined. Her ultimate goal is to create a strengths-based therapeutic recreation treatment program.

About Lauren

Lauren Torok’s interest in her current research comes from personal experience with Major Depressive Disorder–she’s interested in how people flourish in the face of mental illness.  

“My own experiences with mental health and my subsequent journey of creating a life of meaning provide a context for my interest in positive psychology and the role of leisure in physical and psychological well-being,” says Lauren.

In addition, her work as a Recreation Therapy Intern at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton has made her a champion of Recreation Therapy and fueled a desire to provide more research evidence to the field.

A Master of Arts Applied Health Sciences - Leisure Studies candidate at Brock University, Lauren completed her Bachelor of Recreation and Leisure Studies (Honours) degree in Therapeutic Recreation at Brock. Her thesis – “What is Animal Assisted Therapy? What Makes a Program Viable?" — led her to write a policy paper on using animals in therapy. In 2012, she provided staff training at St. Joseph’s Health care in Hamilton. Lauren has several trained therapeutic dogs as pets. She credits these furry friends with aiding in her own recovery.  

In 2013/2014, Lauren was a recipient of the Ontario Graduate Scholarship, and received the Dean of Graduate Studies Excellence Scholarship from Brock University. Lauren has also been a guest lecturer for a variety of courses within the Applied Health Sciences Department, focusing her presentations on therapeutic recreation as a strengths-based therapy.

What is Lauren’s research about?

Lauren’s research emphasizes a strengths-based approach that empowers marginalized individuals who have not previously had the opportunity to voice the experience of having a mental illness. Through the exploration of such experiences, Lauren hopes to gain insight into the ways in which this population can be better served within the health care system. “There is no cure for mental illness,” says Lauren, “but recovery is possible. Leisure may be the only facet of life through which individuals with mental illness gain a perceived sense of freedom and give meaning or purpose to their life.”

Her thesis will include in-depth interviews with individuals who have been diagnosed with a mental illness, but who are socially connected, satisfied with their lives, and demonstrating success in educational/vocational pursuits. A particular focus will be on the ways these individuals engage in leisure; leisure is a part of life that is most likely to be perceived as relatively free from external pressures. In other words, leisure is likely to generate positive emotion, and that can help people identify strengths, interests, and talents (Carruthers & Hood, 2007; Kleiber, 1999). Leisure, when well used, has the potential to contribute significantly to the creation of meaningful social networks, community connections, and a sense of enjoyment in life (Carruthers & Hood, 2007). 

”The benefits of leisure continue to be overlooked and underappreciated,” notes Lauren. ”But leisure may be the only space through which a person maintains ultimate control and feels autonomous. When doing something fun, individuals may be less likely to think about the negative things associated with their symptoms. Experiences that are rich in positive emotion have the restorative power that provides respite and over time promotes resilience fostering a sense of hope and optimism for their future.” 

How can you use this research?

Lauren hopes to inspire change in mental health support services by providing solid evidence that taking part in recreation and leisure will have a positive and strengths-based process impact on clients. The results from her master’s thesis will be translated into a treatment program that supports recovery-oriented therapeutic recreation practice. Lauren notes that the project “has the potential to enhance therapeutic recreation and mental health services, promote well-being for individuals with mental illness and reduce rates of re-hospitalization regionally, provincially and nationally.” 

What is next for Lauren?

Lauren will begin doctoral coursework in 2014 in Applied Health Sciences at Brock University and will focus on the social and cultural aspects of health. She will be presenting at two conferences in May 2014. "The role of leisure in recovery from mental illness: preliminary results" will be presented at the Our New Leisure Society: Canadian Congress on Leisure Research Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. "Recovery Oriented Therapeutic Recreation Practice in Mental Health Services: Lessons Learned from the Leisure and Well-being Model" will be presented at the Live Well be Healthy Beyond Expectations: Canadian Therapeutic Recreation Association Conference Banff, Alberta. 

For more information about Lauren’s study, please contact her at lauren [dot] torok [at] brocku [dot] ca

Author: Bonnie Polych