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November 3, 2020

Preparing for Winter Mental Wellness With Northern Initiative for Social Action

As winter approaches and COVID-19 restrictions tighten yet again in Ontario, we know the risk of Canadians’ mental health declining is high. Cold temperatures mean less opportunities for outdoor socialization, the closing of more services and of course, reduced daylight hours posing new challenges for those who struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) 

This winter, we’re speaking to peer workers from across our member organizations to understand the mental health trends they’re seeing and how you can better prepare for mental wellness during these colder months. 

Meagan Mullally is an Outreach Peer Supporter (or Pair aidante en service d’approch) at Northern Initiative for Social Action (NISA)– an organization run by and for people with lived experience of mental health challenges / mental illness  in Sudbury. Here she shares her thoughts on how winter is impacting the mental health of NISA’s members and why it’s important to create an emergency mental health plan to protect your wellness in the months ahead. 

What mental health trends are you seeing at your organization as we move towards the colder months?  

There are a few trends we’re seeing. We’re worried about community members who have been made more vulnerable by winter weather and by the disruptions to supports/services caused by the pandemic. The stresses around precarious housing have been exacerbated and the mental health strains related to this are visible. With the cold weather, we’re seeing reduced access to safe and warm spaces and services for unsheltered members of our community (which threatens the health and safety of those directly affected).  Many are also already struggling with the effects of seasonal weather changes such as sleep and mood disturbances and low motivation. The winter weather also exacerbates accessibility issues, causing those of us with physical limitations or disabilities to become more isolated. 

What are other trends have you noticed, perhaps related to this second wave of the pandemic? 

I’m seeing the effects now of lessened or lost access to much-needed community mental health support. Many of us have had to go without (or with much less) support than we had found helpful in recovering from crisis or in maintaining our wellness in the past. 

There’s a sense of resignation in the people I see around ever having access to much needed supports and services again. Sometimes a feeling of having been forgotten, as if those of us who rely on such supports are often considered less worthy of access. It’s interesting to see what has now been made accessible to people as services reopen and what has not. It says a lot about our civic priorities. 

I also see a lot of folks dealing with loss and grief related to setbacks in recovery, over which they have had little to no control. Many activities which helped build a sense of meaning, connection, and belonging for them have halted. The reduced opportunities to participate in community life has increased loneliness and what is available is not equally accessible due to financial barriers or issues around literacy and access to technology. In this environment, I’ve seen several people relapse and our community has recognized an increase in overdoses in the area. 

It’s interesting to see what has now been made accessible to people as services reopen and what has not. It says a lot about our civic priorities. 

– Meagan Mullally

Is there anything positive you’ve noticed? 

Despite the hardship, people with lived experience have demonstrated tremendous resilience and creativity in dealing with the challenges of the pandemic and with how we needed to change things to keep ourselves and our communities safe. Folks have learned new coping strategies through the period of isolation in the spring that are being turned to as we prepare for the colder, darker months ahead. Others are deeply relieved that the technology has been put in place to offer virtual peer support through phone or video so this can be turned to on a regular basis as a way to connect with peers and boost mental health. 

NISA gave an interview to the CBC about the importance of emergency mental health preparedness plans at this time. Can you explain to us what that is? 

An emergency mental health preparedness plan will look different depending on the context it’s created in and who created it. Fundamentally, it is a practice of self-care and personal responsibility. It is an acknowledgment of our challenges or the challenges thrust upon us, an anchoring to what we know helps us stay well, and a process of considering how we can best equip ourselves to get through difficult times and hang on to experiences that are life-giving. It is a personal tools list, but it is also so much more than that: mental health plans are rooted in caring for ourselves but also for our loved ones and our communities. They need us, just as we need them.

There are structured approaches to creating a mental health plan such as WRAP (the Wellness Recovery Action Plan) by the Copeland Foundation, Mad Maps by the Icarus Projects and TMAPs (Transformational Mutual Aid Practices) and other tools that provide structured space and suggestions for building a personal “map” of wellness strategies, resilience practices, and community resources. While many folks find these tools very helpful, formal workshops or workbooks are not necessary for creating an impactful personal plan.  

Why is it important? 

A personalized plan is empowering. It allows us to own how we respond to difficult situations and to face each day with a little less fear and uncertainty about whether we will be able to cope, because we’ve recognized our strengths and how we’ve moved through challenging times before. It helps us realize the supports we currently have, and the meaningful connections we might need to try to secure moving forward. 

Over the last few months I have noticed a common desire to be of help to others in need. Mental health planning also allows us to explore how we can also be a resource to our community. If we are prepared, webs of mutual aid and support can be organized. Being able to “give back” and/or to maintain our ability to make meaningful contributions to the life of our community is such an important part of many individuals’ personal recovery.

A personalized plan is empowering. It allows us to own how we respond to difficult situations and to face each day with a little less fear and uncertainty about whether we will be able to cope, because we’ve recognized our strengths and how we’ve moved through challenging times before.

– Meagan Mullally

What are some examples of things that could be part of one of these plans? 

Some big ones would be seeking alternative methods to keep in touch with peers (via telephone, text, email, video chat, etc.) and considering options outside of what we typically consider to be our community (with online access, options are nearly endless!). We want to plan and commit to honour that need to be connected and participate in relationships that are built on mutuality. We want to commit to taking actions that help us meet our needs and keep us connected to our peers and the meaningful work we support each other in doing. Stocking up on food is important, of course…but also other sources of nourishment – for instance, stocking up on supplies to engage in arts and crafts and activities that nourish your mind and spirit. 

What’s in your own plan? 

My list is pretty fulsome, so I’ll just offer it in point form and maybe that can inspire someone to jot their own list of things too. My wellness plan includes: 

  • A list of friends whom I want to make a better effort to keep in contact with (and an accountability plan so I can follow-though on this goal).  
  • Finding ways to contribute to my community from a distance and from the heart 
  • Exploring new online options to maintain connection with others who have similar lived experiences as me. There is something essential in having access to peer relationships!  
  • Journaling 
  • Planning and preparing meals ahead of time
  • A go-to list of “activities I enjoy” for those days where I am bored and can’t remember being able to enjoy a darn thing! 
  • A few long-term projects to continue / finish work on 
  • My WRAP plans (both my personal recovery plan and my WRAP for work plan) need a go-over/update so working on my plan is part of my plan!
  • Connecting to nature —being intentional about spending time outdoors regularly  
  • Books! To finally order that list (once it has been whittled to an appropriate amount…) I have been pining for. This is a great reading season!
  • Establishing regular check-ins with a few folks (I have a tendency to withdraw socially – and given the current situation which calls for social distance – it is all too easy for me to disappear these days) 
  • Choosing a few low-impact/low-commitment ways to incorporate more movement into my daily routine 
  • Bringing the garden inside, focusing on being warm and cozy, and making my space one I want to spend time in over the winter! 

Finally, any other words of encouragement for getting through these challenging times?

I often find it helpful to look back, before looking forward. The thought of planning anything can sometimes really overwhelm me and can trigger the old negative thought loops. I find it helpful to look for proof that I have managed/succeeded/didn’t completely fall apart/found my way back together… and then try to build on the lessons learned and recalled: the small things that often go unremembered are often far more valuable to staying well then I tend to give them credit for. 

Your plan does not necessarily need to be much more than a short list of reminders. It can be a more structured plan. But it can also be talking it out and coming up with a few key strategies, with the support of a peer. It can be a bucket-list of self-care ideas, or coping skills, or a list of potential sources of support (bonus points if you’ve actually talked to them about this! 😉). It’s really about noting your self-care anchors that you need to thrive, or survive, and giving yourself an easy way to access it. When you realize all the ways you’ve moved through dark times before it makes the current moment seem just a bit more manageable and hopeful.  

Learn more about NISA and their winter programming at www.nisa.on.ca/services/. 

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