Falling temperatures and shorter days mean winter is on the doorstep and wants to come in.
Some welcome it. Others want it to go away already.
There’s a whole range of ways we experience winter, from loving all the sports and festivities that go with it, to dreading its arrival, say mental health workers in Manitoba.
“I think the majority of us are somewhere in the middle,” says Janet Smith, program manager of Manitoba Farm and Rural Support Services, a province-wide online and phone counselling service.
Riskier road travel and lanes to plow notwithstanding, winter on the farm can be welcomed, she says.
“It’s a more peaceful time in many ways,” says Smith. “Most of us love summer, but it’s also a very busy time, and it’s also very social. We can spread ourselves pretty thin in the summer. So if you’re feeling a bit burnt out from summer, you get to slow down and have a little bit of quiet time in winter. It’s also a time when you can do some planning for the following season.”
The downside can be the isolation and more time to worry. Then your thoughts can go down a slope as slippery as the road to town.
“It’s when you’re less busy and spending more time alone, that there’s a tendency to ruminate and think about things that maybe haven’t gone well in your life, or recent events,” she says.
If you sense your mental health deteriorating — in winter or any time of year — you need to reach out for help, says Smith. Signs can be feelings of lethargy, extreme fatigue, sadness, or anger.
Winter takes a heavier toll on older Manitobans, says Eileen Clarke, mayor of Gladstone, a community focused on improved year-round livability through its age-friendly strategies. Clarke says every autumn she can sense anxiety as winter approaches.
“As soon as people are clearing up their gardens, and the temperature is dropping and the days are shorter, you can feel their mood dropping,” she says.
It’s not the cold or dark so much as the social isolation to come, she says. More become ‘shut-ins’ when highway conditions make them think twice about going somewhere. Others avoid walking outdoors for fear of falling. People can’t visit, and spend a lot of time indoors, she says.
“It’s that anticipation of a long term of a totally different lifestyle,” says Clarke. “People lose their independence. They can feel very alone and their days can be very long.”
Her community does what it can, she says, including offering lots of weekly activities for older citizens, a Handivan service, and making snow removal (including sidewalks and a community pathway) a top priority.
“The key to enjoying winter is to have thermal comfort, a visually stimulating environment, and plenty of recreation and leisure activities,” according to the website of the Winter Cities Institute, an international think-tank that has studied the best practices of northern cities.
About 750 million people have to deal with our type of winter, and the institute says Canadians can learn from their Nordic cousins.
There’s a Swedish saying that ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,’ but there’s more to getting through the season than heavy outer- and under-wear, cleats for shoes, and walking aids.
More ski trails and ice rinks, outdoor winter landscaping and decoration, and more activities that bring the community together all make winter more livable, according to the institute.
The most well-adapted places provide for their most vulnerable citizens by offering lots of transportation alternatives for non-drivers and paying particular attention to pedestrians’ needs. For example, Reykjavik, Iceland, has what’s called the ‘Green Scarf’ — shelterbelt corridor planted through the city to shield walkers from wind.
Community life can definitely make winter less of an endurance test, says Smith.
“An individual can certainly experience the winter blues, and may be sliding over into a mood disorder, and that’s a real thing and needs treatment,” she says.
“But I think the role of the community is important to look at, too, and it’s worth taking a look at how friendly a community is in winter. Does everything shut down? Are there lots of opportunities for people to get together informally, and, I would add, low-cost ways to enjoy the company of others?”
Rural communities are notably good at hosting inclusive events, she added.
“I think rural communities do way better than larger centres in that respect. There may be more to do in a larger centre, but there’s oftentimes a feeling of anomie.”
Karen Tjaden, a minister with Crossroads United Pastoral Charge at Carman and Elm Creek, says the experience of winter can be very difficult for those shut in, or those who suffer from mood disorders that develop from lack of sunlight.
“We know that light affects people’s emotions, and that some people are definitely affected by less daylight,” she says.
She also urges people to try to see winter in a different light — an essential time that not only allows us to slow the pace of life a little, but the permission to do so.
“I’ve heard many people talk about how they love a snow day, and I’ve really observed how quick we are to take snow days,” Tjaden says. “Maybe it’s me aging, but it just seems to me, that we’re quicker and quicker to cancel everything on the forecast of a storm. I think it’s because we’re too busy.”