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Let’s Talk About Mental Health: Loneliness, connection and social support

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PHOTO BY EMMA SIMPSON

By Shannon Steele EBS Behavioral Health Columnist 

“You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.” – Grace Lee Boggs

The COVID-19 pandemic has done a job on all of us. We have been and are still faced with very personal fears and losses and shared common anxieties and concerns. Many in Big Sky still feel intense isolation and continue to struggle with mental health and behavioral impacts, including unhealthy levels of drinking and
substance abuse. 

Given the unique nature of resort towns and the Mountain West, the impact may be heightened and is largely unknown due to the community’s transient nature. The good news is that our community is mobilizing support.

In key ways, the last 20 months in Big Sky have exposed unique challenges created by the isolation of vast open spaces and disrupted social and family networks. Many of us are separated from our core support systems and our social circles here are transitory and shallow. It’s satisfying when we are relaxed, working and socializing together, but the pressures of the pandemic drove us all inward and inside, struggling with our own sense of self, safety and risk that is still present.

Decades of research show that social ties and social support are positively related to mental health, physical health and longevity. Both act as a buffer for the harmful physical and mental health impacts of stress. We are hardwired to crave oxytocin, the bonding hormone released when holding hands, hugging, during intimacy and even petting an animal. Connection is a basic human need for psychological growth
and development.

Studies of previous disease outbreaks showed that impacted populations experienced a sense of isolation arising from the loss of a usual routine and contact with others, along with elevated levels of stress, fear, low mood, irritability, frustration and boredom. Coupled with the unique nature of our community, the mental health risks to all of us here are high.

And then another unique thing happened, disrupting our sense of safety and control. While much of the country was settling into levels of lock-down, in May 2020, Montana opened to tourism. Many came here precisely for safety reasons, permitted by remote work and school. Big Sky and Yellowstone were busier than ever while lacking the personnel resources to function “normally.”

A Big Sky employee I spoke to reported feeling overwhelmed by customers seemingly oblivious to the ongoing pandemic, having to act as mask police, and stressing out about their own safety. Being a type of essential worker in that circumstance created all kinds of heightened anxiety.

Things are different now as we prepare for the influx of winter vacationers and seasonal residents. But it still doesn’t feel normal. Many of us are experiencing social anxiety that we haven’t known before. Are we still at risk? 

In fact, U.S. Census Bureau data shows that 30 percent of Americans now show symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. This is a huge jump from before the pandemic. We are moving forward but we are not done.

Fortunately, in Big Sky, work to expand mental and behavioral health awareness, access, and availability was well underway before COVID-19 came along. Launched last year, Big Sky’s Behavioral Health Coalition was formed in response to research showing that community members were unaware of available resources and that resources—from social support to treatment—were, in fact, limited.

A few new resources are now in place, with more in the works, and the coalition is actively engaging community members to mobilize a Community Support Network. These are community members that have deep insight into the needs, strengths, culture, barriers and challenges of different groups within Big Sky (i.e. workforce, youth, ages 60-plus, Latino populations, etc.). 

The network acts as a resource navigator to provide multiple entry points for community members to seek support and ensure needs are being met. This means assisting individuals in accessing healthcare services, community wellness programs or social support services, pointing them in the right direction and providing them with enough information to ensure successful access.  If you are interested in learning more or want to become a wellness navigator, email shannon.steele@yellowstoneclub.com.

Shannon Steele is the behavioral health program officer at the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, and values a collaborative and community-centered approach to mental/behavioral health and wellness. She has a background in mind-body wellness and community health, and is also a certified yoga instructor and active volunteer. Community, wellness and the outdoors have always been pillars in Shannon’s life.

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