Point of View: Mental health tools and the power of a connected community

At the invitation of Kathleen Gustafson, I had the opportunity to participate in KBBI’s first ever remote live stream Coffee Table last week. The topic was “mental health check in” — a timely topic as we enter into our fourth month of living through a global pandemic.

As the guinea pig for convening a conversation that normally occurs face-to-face in the studio, technology certainly presented some challenges. It was apropos as a large portion of the conversation focused on the importance of connection during stressful times. The experience of having trouble connecting while having a conversation on the power and importance of connections, was almost comical (note: humor is one of the tools in the toolbox for managing stressful times).

Maintaining relationships and connection to others is important in the best of times and even more so during times like these (another tool). Our normal opportunities for connecting (e.g. coffee date at a local shop, a quick check-in while passing at the library) have disappeared from our daily lives. We are all faced with the challenge of building and sustaining connections while abiding by the Centers for Disease Control’s community mitigation measures and keeping our social circles small.

Online and social media is one place where these connections can be made. In an attempt to cultivate a sense of community and connection during these socially distant times, MAPP (Mobilizing for Action through Planning & Partnerships) has been hosting a month-long Wellness Challenge. Rooted in the 8 Dimensions of Wellness, we are encouraging people to explore their relationships with the various dimensions and then share that exploration. Each sharing is entered into a weekly drawing for a chance to win a $50 gift certificate to the local restaurant of the recipient’s choice. The Wellness Challenge runs through Friday, July 10 and we invite participation from all community members.

There are three ways to participate in the Wellness Challenge: 1) Share photos or stories on Facebook or Instagram using #ConnectedCommunity, #________Wellness, and tagging @MAPP of the Southern Kenai Peninsula; 2) Email a photo or description of your exploration to mappofskp@gmail.com; and 3) Mail a drawing or description of your activity to P.O. Box 1245, Homer, Alaska 99603.

Examples of activities that have been shared to date include: chopping wood to prepare for winter (#EconomicWellness); a meal consisting of local eggs, salmon, greens and salt (#EnvironmentalWellness); a bike ride on the Spit trail (#PhysicalWellness); and reading a book outside in the sun (#EducationalWellness).

There is power in taking time to pause each day, focus on what we love about this place and how we experience it, and putting energy towards cultivating those connections. Gratitude is another essential tool for navigating stressful times. In the words of Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mark Kirko, a member of Homer’s Emergency Operations Center, “This is a marathon, not a sprint.” Making a routine of reflecting on what we value and are grateful for will serve us well in maintaining the energy necessary to finish this marathon.

Empathy is the final tool I want to acknowledge as a necessity during this time. A great Homer analogy for our collective experience of this pandemic is that while we are all in the same storm, we are all in different boats, and therefore, we are all having very different experiences. I encourage everyone to hold that thought as they encounter others along the way, whether it be a checker at the grocery store, someone with a different opinion in a social media comment thread, or the person behind you in line at the Post Office. They may feel like their boat is sinking at any given moment, and offering them patience, empathy and compassion might be the life-ring they need in order to keep them afloat.

Hannah Gustafson is the MAPP of Southern Kenai Peninsula CoalitionCoordinator.

MAPP (Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships) is a local health improvement coalition with the vision of a proactive, resilient and innovative community.