As sunlight becomes rarer and each day seems to begin and end with sub-freezing temperatures, Waterville-area mental health professionals say it’s never been more important to get outside during a winter season.
The coronavirus pandemic is not going away anytime soon, and being outdoors along with exercise are key factors in influencing positive mental health.
Tina Chapman, senior engagement officer at Kennebec Behavioral Health in Waterville, wrote in an email that the recreation and physical activity provided by utilizing the Quarry Road Trails can help manage symptoms for people who experience anxiety, depression and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In some cases, physical activity, which releases endorphins, can be just as effective as an antidepressant, Chapman said.
“The long, dark winter months are often particularly difficult for people living with mental illness,” Chapman said. “One way to help boost the body’s natural ability to manage and improve mental health symptoms is physical activity. We also know that being outdoors in nature has many benefits to one’s well-being.”
Olivia Marson is a doctoral-level psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner who treats children, adolescents and adult patients at Elmwood Primary Care on Main Street in Waterville and is assistant medical director for outpatient psychiatry at MaineGeneral. She said being outdoors can change the way our brains operate.
“When you’re in nature, different parts of your brain are activated,” Marson wrote in response to questions from the Morning Sentinel. “The parts related to being on edge are being calmed down, which can lead to physical changes in your body such as a reduction in your blood pressure and heart rate. Now more than ever it is important to try to get outside and get some fresh air.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five U.S. adults experience mental illness each year and one in six U.S. youth age 6-17 experience a mental health disorder.
In a year-over-year analysis between 2019 and October 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reported a 24% increase in mental health-related emergency room visits for children ages 5 to 11 and a 31% increase in children ages 12 to 17.
Moreover, the U.S. CDC found that 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse.
“The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has been associated with mental health challenges related to the morbidity and mortality caused by the disease and to mitigation activities, including the impact of physical distancing and stay-at-home orders,” the CDC wrote in an August report.
Marson said the stressful nature of the times contributes to stress and concern, and that is normal.
“Do small things that can bring you some peace,” Marson said. “Any amount of time that you can spend outside in nature is worth it, even if it’s just 10 minutes on your lunch break.”
Numerous trails wind in and around the Waterville area, including the Quarry Road Trails, which invite skiers, walkers and bikers to utilize the year-round pathways.
“The pandemic has shut down a lot of regular avenues that people are familiar with to exercise, so you have to think outside the box,” said Amanda Robbio, a certified nurse practitioner at Northern Light Primary Care in Madison, in response to questions provided by the Morning Sentinel.
“Local trails, like Quarry Road Trails and Kennebec Messalonskee Trails, and college campuses are great places to get outdoors and take a walk and maintain safe social distancing guidelines — please be sure to wear your mask at all times.”
Justin Fereshetian, program director and Nordic ski coach for the city of Waterville and Quarry Road Trails, hopes to see area residents outside using the trails.
“I think it’s already very important for the area, but I think this pandemic, and people kind of being cooped up inside more, especially during this time of year when there’s less sunlight, it’s huge,” Fereshetian said. “Not just for physical health, but emotional and mental health, too. We are going to do everything we can to stay open, provide excellent skiing.”
Patrick Cote, a longtime volunteer ski coach with the Central Maine Ski Club, board member of the Friends of Quarry Road, and father of three boys, has a unique relationship with the coronavirus pandemic. Not just as a father and a coach, but in his professional life as a director of pharmacy services for a large healthcare system based in South Dakota.
Cote’s sons all ski: Caden, a 16-year-old junior at Messalonskee High School; Beckett, a 13-year-old eighth grader; and Lex, an 11-year-old sixth grader.
“We’ve experienced what many families are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Cote said. “We’ve seen an increase in video games, an increase in sitting around … Getting kids outside and active is very important, and we’re lucky that, with Nordic skiing, the skis are long enough so that we have a lot of automatic things built-in to maintain 6-feet or more of spacing.”
Cote, whose current professional responsibilities involve prepping for the impending coronavirus vaccine, said skiing offers a fantastic opportunity for kids to socialize and stay healthy.
“Based on the data available on how and within what population COVID-19 spreads, I wish, as a country, we better balanced what we’re doing with our kids,” Cote said. “I think there are safe, fun and really healthy activities that we could take advantage of right now, and I’m really pretty proud of where we’re at as a ski club.”