Nova Scotia

How a park bench in Yarmouth is meant to improve mental health

Sometimes a park bench is meant for more than just sitting.

Town of Yarmouth and Association of Psychologists of Nova Scotia hope bench will foster human connections

The bench was installed in Frost Park, near town hall, overlooking the harbour. (Susan Marsh)

Sometimes a park bench is meant for more than just sitting. 

Last weekend, the Town of Yarmouth and the Association of Psychologists of Nova Scotia unveiled a bench in Frost Park near town hall. The words "Sit and chat a while" are inscribed across one of its wooden slats.

The bench is installed in a part of the park overlooking the harbour and aims to encourage face-to-face interactions — without the distractions of technology — in the name of mental health.

Progression of the 'buddy bench'

The idea came from the Association of Psychologists of Nova Scotia, according to past president Dr. Shelley Goodwin. It's a progression of the buddy bench, a global trend toward providing safe and friendly places for bullied or lonely kids to sit with others.

Originally intended for Halifax, Goodwin said it was suggested installing the bench in a smaller town would be a good place to start.

"There's all kinds of research that supports that eye contact, one-on-one engaging with somebody, having a buddy, feeling connected ... all of that is an important part of what happens when we put those electronics aside," said Goodwin.

A message of connection

Goodwin, a psychologist in private practice in Yarmouth, points to research about human relationships and body language out of the U.S. She said turning off the TV or putting down a phone when someone walks into the room, then orienting toward that person, can send powerful signals.

"The unwritten message is, 'You are more important than anything else that I'm doing,'" she said. "It's giving that message of connection."

The bench is an extension of that concept, Goodwin said.

She said APNS hopes to install more of these benches across the province. But while a horse can be led to water, Goodwin admits the rest can be tricky.

Buddy benches have appeared in schoolyards across the globe. They're intended to be a spot where children can go when they want some company. (Submitted by Kara Turner)

"The bench sign that says 'Sit and chat a while,' is the enticement," she said. 

"We intentionally used 'chat.' We didn't say 'Come text a while.' We said, 'Come chat a while,' to actually have that oral communication."

Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood said the bench sends a message that makes people think twice about having their heads down looking at their phones.

She can see the bench from her workplace and said she's happy to be seeing many people come and go from the bench. 

"[On social media] we forget that we're dealing with human souls that have families and friends. Anything that can draw attention to the fact that we need to do more face-to-face conversation — I'm on board with that 150 per cent," said Mood.