The pandemic and winter blues: a one-two punch to our mental health



An Indigenous psychiatrist shares strategies for managing anxiety and depression in a difficult season​


A message from Dr. Nel Wieman, Acting Deputy Chief Medical Officer

If you're struggling with your mental health and wellness more than usual during these strange times, know that this perfectly normal. The pandemic has caused more isolation, leaving us feeling loneliness, anxiety and/or depression.

On top of that, winter brings shorter days with less sunlight, and colder weather that might prevent us from getting together outdoors for physically distanced walks as often as we'd like.

Indigenous people rely on being connected to each other, either with family and friends, or with large in-person cultural gatherings and ceremonies. Now that we can't gather, we've had to learn how to continue connecting socially, emotionally and spiritually while maintaining safe physical distance.

Even with challenges – actually, especially because of them – it is important that we stay as strong as we can and try to maintain our mental health and wellness throughout this unusual winter.

Fortunately, as a psychiatrist by training, I know there are many things we can do as individuals to combat the impact of a crisis like the pandemic on our mental health and wellness. Following are some of these strategies.

(Note: If you are feeling very depressed or are struggling with substance use disorder, you might need extra help in the form of consulting with a health professional, medication, treatments and/or therapies. There are several resources available to you. Please reach out for help if you need it. You are worth it! Visit this link to view your options.)

Mental health management strategies for dealing with depression:

1. Get or stay connected to others. One of the most effective ways of avoiding depression is by connecting with other people. Even though connecting may be more challenging during the winter, or you might not feel like it due to depression, it is extremely important for your mental health. Have regular Zoom / WhatsApp / FaceTime calls if possible, use social media to keep in touch, or phone friends or family to chat. Take physically distanced walks with the people in your immediate household if possible. You will likely feel better for having made the effort.

2. Focus on good news. Be careful about the type of news you are reading; choose news stories that are hopeful (and helpful to your mental health), like our Good Medicine articles about inspirational Indigenous people in BC. Avoid negative news about the situation, especially opinions from those with no medical expertise. The FNHA provides comprehensive, factual, and up-to-date information on the pandemic; check out our Facebook page or Website for all the information you need to know. Stay calm and positive.

3. Get clear on what you do or do not have control over. Once you identify those changes you can control, mentally relax about the things you cannot. Continue working on setting very small goals because reaching them is a great way to feel better.

4. Encourage open talk about mental health. If you notice someone is struggling, ask how you can help. If you are struggling yourself, please reach out for help. Check in with others regularly to see how they are doing. Remind yourself and others that this is temporary and things will eventually get better. Think and talk positively.

5. Help others and be extra kind to each other. Helping other people, whether it's cleaning the house, cooking, or getting firewood or groceries for an Elder, will boost your mood – and theirs! Now, more than ever, is the time to be kind to each other.

6. Try out a “Happy Li​ght." This easy-to-use light can help people who feel depressed or experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a type of depression related to changes in seasons and lower levels of light.

7. Practise gratitude. All of us likely have at least one of these things: good health, good food to eat, friends or family supports, enough financial resources or a job to help us get through the pandemic. Being grateful for any of these blessings we do have will help us feel stronger.

8. Sleep well. For information on sleeping well during troubled times, view this link.

Remember that these eight strategies are all to be used in tandem with the FNHA's usual recommendations for good mental, physical, spiritual and emotional health and wellness, i.e., Being Active, Eating Healthy, Nurturing Spirit, and Respecting Tobacco. I can't stress enough how important it is to follow these recommendations for good overall health. Please take the time to read each of them and think about how you can incorporate them into your life.

For more mental health management strategies, I encourage you to read the infographic below and to read the informative messages on our Website, including this one about “Weathering a COVID Winter."

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