Heading outdoors can get you through winter’s darkest days
While winter marks the beginning of yet another hardwater season, it can also send those who silently suffer from mental illness onto emotional thin ice. The heavy weight of depression and the pressures of anxiety can crack a brave surface and eventually pull otherwise strong people under. Winter is indeed a dark place, but thankfully light shines through the ice hut door in the form of initiatives such as Bell Let’s Talk Day on January 24.
This annual campaign is a conversation ice breaker around matters of mental health, a topic that impacts many people in our lives. And there’s no better place for a healthy talk than our common fishing and hunting grounds. We are united by the outdoors. There’s a sense of community, and we trust each other when conversations need to go deeper than the fishing lines below. This is a mental wellness support system we need to recognize and promote.
Nothing cures wintertime cabin fever better than a trek across the hardwater or a walk in the woods with a friend, especially for someone who may be slipping into the despair of depression. For people who spend all day alone, whether it’s at their desk, on the farm or behind the wheel, isolation can stir negative thoughts, dragging them down.
I understand what some people are going through because I struggle, too. It’s not easy to share this, but quite often the reason I need to get outdoors is to get out of my head. When my wheels of worry hit full spin, severe mental exhaustion cripples all functions. And one of the ways I seek treatment is from the view of a casting deck, treestand or ice hut, my go-to places for mindfulness.
Fishing and hunting provide my favourite highs when I reach my lowest lows. Deep breaths of fresh air pump the brakes on racing thoughts. Soon my anxiety folds to focus, and as I reel in the morning sunlight, my headspace improves dramatically. The outdoors untangles my mind—and heals it.
You might say time in the woods or on the water is just what the doctor ordered. “Nature prescriptions” are, in fact, a real thing, and in some provinces, they’re provided to patients who need a dose of what has always advanced the health of hunters and anglers. As it turns out, feeling better after a morning hunt isn’t just all in my head—nature therapy is evidence-based. Health studies clearly show how contact with nature, even for a few hours a week, reduces stress, improves clarity and instantly brings on a positive state of mind.
Of course, a doctor’s note is never required to claim the outdoors lifestyle as a personal wellness system. But did you know that some health benefit providers indicate that expenses related to hunting and fishing are as eligible for reimbursement as claims for fitness club and gym membership fees? Manulife, Desjardins and Sun Life offer good examples. If your employer supports that kind of wellness benefit plan, you should be able to recoup the cost of at least some of your hunting and fishing licences and gear. I would suggest those savings could then be donated to organizations that advocate for fishing and hunting as mental health solutions.
Breaking the stigma that surrounds mental health is as important as breaking a certain stereotype that clouds the world of anglers and hunters. Namely, it often seems as though we need to remain as reclusive and rugged as the places where we fish and hunt, seemingly invincible to sickness, including that of the mind. This leads many of us to just suck it up when we know a mental breakdown may be coming around the bend, hoping we can simply power through the dark days without any help. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Nor should it.
Mental illness is a matter of being sick, not weak, and it can affect anyone. If you feel yourself succumbing to the gloom, the road to recovery begins with being brave enough to admit you’re not okay. At the same, if you know people who need professional help, it’s important to tell them they’re not alone. In either case, the best way to start the conversation this winter is to extend an invitation to head outdoors: “Let’s go ice fishing. Let’s talk.”