Stay connected, and get outside: A counsellor's advice to get through another pandemic winter

Whitehorse counsellor Joseph Graham says there are some simple ways to help take care of your mental well-being in difficult times.

Make it a daily practice to find peace, says Whitehorse counsellor Joseph Graham

McIntyre Creek in Whitehorse. It's when we're disconnected with nature or with other people that we suffer the most, according to a Whitehorse counsellor who suggests going outside at some point every day. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

Maintaining good mental health can be a challenge, especially in stressful times.

And for many Northerners, these are indeed stressful times — with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty, a changing climate, political polarization and, of course, several dark, cold months of winter ahead. 

But Joseph Graham says there are some simple ways to shore up your mental well-being. Graham is the director of clinical services at Northern Focus Counselling in Whitehorse, and he spoke to Yukon Morning host Elyn Jones about self-care in difficult times.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

There's a lot going on, but let's start with the darkness. What effect does that have on people's mental health?

We're going into what they call "the tunnel" in northern European countries, but the darkening, darkening, darkening. So the effect is that our brain doesn't sense that daylight and we feel, well, that seasonal affective disorder, that feeling of being trapped, or no light. 

And it just takes a bit of extra intention to get out and to feel the sun in your face every day at some point. I know not every job allows you to get that easily, but if you do have a coffee break or a lunch break, [try] to feel the sun in your face for that moment. Or try to take a bigger section in the middle of the day to get out and then go back and work a little bit later if you have to, or something like that.

My personal practice is to try to feel the sun on my face or, you know, the bright and outdoor environment on myself every day at some point, as what I call a "constitutional" — in the same way we all have to go to the bathroom every day, we also have to be outside.

And that sense of being outside helps us feel connected to nature, and that helps us feel more peace or at ease. When we're disconnected with nature or with other people is when we suffer the most. So the theme of connection is important in keeping our mental health in good shape. 

Lack of connection — that's certainly been something right through the pandemic, that as we distance socially sometimes from people, that causes stress for us. What are some of the other implications that COVID-19 has for our mental health? 

In the addictions field — it's the best kind of model that people are approaching it with — addiction is synonymous with disconnection. So then, you know, the cure is more connection.

So yeah, now that we're in more isolated lifestyles, we have to put a concerted, intentional effort to become connected, and that will help us. So that connection again is those phone calls, and digital connections, and even playing video games with your friends is a way of connecting, unlike like maybe playing games by yourself. 

Otherwise, connection can be having that experience in nature, which helps us feel connected. So that's another kind of daily practice — connecting with people, and connecting with the outdoors, in nature.

And combining that, I suppose going for a walk with a friend or doing something outside with a friend could kind of double up on some of that connection? 

Exactly — I'm voracious about efficiencies! I'm like, "OK, I'm doing this, what I was going to do at the same time?" So listening to music or podcasts while you walk or a run or exercise or whatever is pretty important to do. 

And yeah, the pandemic and climate change and these things can also be quite polarizing. Like, you know, if you have a vaccine or not, that's become a polarizing thing. So as much as these polarizing things come at us, we have to be kind and remember — you know, stay connected, and the person we're talking to is not a mandate or a policy, the person we're talking to is a person.

So it's crucial to demonstrate this kind of compassion for each other in exactly these times. It's easy to be nice when everything's fine, but when you're kind when things are challenging — that's the ultimate challenge. 

Stress is guaranteed, and it's how we cope with the stress that makes us rise to the challenge.

Overall then, what are your must-haves for our mental wellness toolkit, to get through these tough times?

The must-haves are some kind of daily practice of connection and exercise. Our physical bodies, our beings, have to move, so if you're not jogging or anything like that, it's just getting walking or, some kind of practice of peace — so like playing games, reading books, music, art, meditation. All those things are when we are practicing being in the present moment, and when we're in the present moment we're at our most peaceful. So practicing peace includes practicing those kinds of things that hold us in the present moment so that we're not stressed or anxious about the past or the future.

Can you share some resources, for people who might want more guidance on their mental wellness? 

Well, the internet is the first kind of obvious go-to.

There are several counselling agencies in Whitehorse, and the Mental Wellness Substance Use services has free counselling, and the Canadian Mental Health Association has free counselling. And some of the private places in town have programs that have free counselling as well. So there's a lot of help out there and it can be a bit of a tracking exercise to find the right kind of help for yourself. But if you start asking, you'll find somebody that fits.

But also our elders and our family and our friends and our connections, our neighbours — just kind of going out and helping somebody else helps yourself sometimes, too.

So again, being kind and practicing the peaceful practices are the best ways to keep your stick on the ice, as they say.