Ontario psychiatrist says access to outdoor activities important during pandemic
Reducing winter activities, such as closure of ski areas may cause mental health issues in Ontario
The closure of any outdoor recreation opportunity during the COVID-19 pandemic should be cause for concern, says one Ontario psychiatrist.
Dr. Brad Bowins said he was concerned when the Ontario government made the decision to close ski areas.
"There's always tradeoffs that have to occur. And I do appreciate the enormous impact of the pandemic. But, on the other hand, mental health is suffering a lot and having safe ways to get people active, is very beneficial for mental health," he said.
Bowins said he practices behavioural activation therapy, which helps people suffering from depression by using activity. He wrote a book on the subject which studies how people who perform an activity have better mental health.
"It has a really powerful effect on mental health, both in terms of treating anxiety and depression, among other issues, and improving mental wellbeing in the general population."
Bowins said he was skiing at a major resort in Southern Ontario and was impressed by how lift lines were structured, customers were all wearing masks and the area was ensuring proper COVID-19 protocols were being followed.
"I saw the risk as very low, and the benefits of skiing are very powerful. Not just physical activity, but nature activity. It's nature, skiing is in natural settings, and nature activity has a really powerful effect in producing responses and reducing stress responses."
"Research has shown pretty clearly that just being out in nature makes people feel calmer, even viewing nature scenes can do that."
Bowins said he wants the province to reconsider opening all outdoor recreation opportunities for Ontarians, noting while COVID-19 is a public health issue, their mental health is important as well.
"The mental health costs of this are really getting staggering. I notice a lot of increased depression, anxiety and just a general heaviness or fatigue. Even if people aren't suffering from a formal mental illness, people are just getting worn down by this. Anything that can bolster mental health, like getting outside, doing physical activity, particularly in a natural setting, it's very powerful."
He said tobogganing, for example, is still allowed, although COVID-19 rules are often not enforced at public parks and sliding areas.
"You can absorb yourself in a positive focus, which involves taking yourself away from the negativity, such as thoughts related to COVID-19 and other problems, you absorb yourself in that positive focus. That's very, very therapeutic."
Bowins said the benefits of outdoor activity lead to the complete reversal of how depression works. He said those who suffer from depression have a high behavioural inhibition and a low behaviour activation. When an activity is performed, that order is reversed.
He said those who are more involved in a particular sport that is no longer allowed, will be more impacted than those who take part less often.
One of Thunder Bay's two ski areas, Loch Lomond, posted on its Facebook page, encouraging its customers to contact the provincial government, as well as their MPP.
"The biggest thing we can do right now is to highlight the difference between the ski hills in our region compared to the rest of the province. We are all small, local hills, who serve the population that surrounds them," the statement read.
"The province has painted all ski hills with the same brush, and have acknowledged several times the reason ski hills are closed is because they want to dissuade travel. While this is frustrating, especially with no travel restrictions in effect, it does not translate to our regional operations."
"The hills in our region are more community centres than destinations. We have the ability to limit patronage to those who can prove they live in our communities."
Thunder Bay-Rainy River MPP Judith Monteith-Farrell wrote Lisa McLeod, the Minister for Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture, noting that local ski areas have a short season and have already taken COVID-19 precautions.
"In the interests of public confidence, I urge you to make public the specific public health advice that led to this decision. Further, the ski hill operators in northwestern Ontario have implemented protocols to operate in a safe manner following the guidelines of public health officials. Has your government or public health officials reviewed these plans?" Monteith-Farrell asked.
The province, during its initial announcement that ski hills would be closed, did not provide CBC News with a specific reason as to why ski hills are closed.