Naturally Queer: Nature’s role in queer mental heath from hiking to Animal Crossing


Kyle Alexander, MSW, LCSW, (pronouns he/him/his) a queer Licensed Clinical Social Worker at UNC CAPS, offers his perspective on mental health in the LGBTQIA+ community during COVID-19.

Quarantine as a queer college student often means moving back home.

Home where we may have been kicked-out, abandoned, or made to feel un-welcome for being who we are. Being “othered” by society means we’ve had to find home within ourselves. We’ve found home within our chosen family. Home inside art, inside music, home within everything that is gay, that is light, that is alive. It wasn’t our choice to have to do the difficult work of looking-inward at a young age, but we are grateful for the wisdom and sharpened intuitions.

During COVID the ground feels uneven. Our routines stolen from us overnight. Time is starting to feel weird and being around family means parts of ourselves are going back inside the safety of the closet.

We’ve survived crises like this before. HIV/AIDS took countless of our community (and continues to disproportionally impact the Black and African American community ). We reject and fight against all racism and xenophobia and validate the increased pain people from China may be feeling right now due to discrimination.

We’ve lost so many beautiful artists, doctors, teachers, friends to a virus. We know the importance of community.

We know to protect one another we must first protect ourselves. And the first step of this is caring for our metal health.

Queerantine

Historically we know that due to the systemic and oppressive nature of homophobia and transphobia on one’s mental health. Therefore, at CAPS we want to validate that many queer and trans students (who may not find themselves quarantined in non-affirming home environment due to COVID-19), may currently be experiencing increased distress.

While no tip or skill presented on a blog post could hope to eradicate the impacts of systemic oppression on one’s mental health, this writer hopes to offer some small suggestions to queer readers who may be looking for ways to focus on their mental health during quarantine. This article will focus on advocating for safety and security inside the home and offer a challenge to explore the therapeutic aspects of nature during these stressful times.

The writer would like to acknowledge and validate that many other historically oppressed and minoritized communities are also suffering disproportionate rates of stress during the current pandemic and that one’s queerness does not exist in a silo. That one’s mental health during COVID is constantly influenced by one’s intersectional experiences around their racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, ability status, age etc.… Please look out for future content on the Healthy Heels blog that highlights other aspects of intersectionality, but for the purpose of focus and brevity this article chooses to center LGBTQIA+ identities.

In-Home Safety and “Alone Time”

Before speaking about going outside, it is important to highlight and mention the impact of finding a secure environment within your home. An important part of emotion regulation and focusing on one’s mental health is having a place in your home where you can be alone, relax, and feel safe and secure.

It is important to advocate in your household for personal space and “alone time.”

If you are not able to find solitude within your home (i.e. lots of siblings or family around), I want to challenge you to advocate with your housemates for this boundary and space.

Person curls up in a chair by a plant

For example, picking one chair in your house that you find comforting and asking your housemates, “when I am sitting in this chair, I need to not be disturbed for 30 mins.” Noise cancelling headphones can also be helpful during this alone time.

It is an immense privilege to live in a space that has enough room for privacy and to be able to afford noise cancelling headphones for that matter.  This writer wants to validate that it would be normal for folks who do not have access to privacy right now that fluctuations in mood and increased emotional dysregulation are totally normal and understandable side-effects of quarantine.

Nature Therapy

If you do not feel safe and secure indoors as queer person, it is important that you try to find a place in nature that you can regularly visit to feel secure and an increased sense of peace and groundedness. Perhaps prior to quarantine this would be hanging out with friends, relaxing a new coffee shop, or going out to dinner. During COVID these ways of finding community are difficult, therefore in North Carolina I challenge you to embrace all of the outdoor recreation and trails the Triangle has to offer.

Research suggest that regular engagement with nature positively impacts mood and overall mental health. With the advent of COVID, structure begins to disappear from many of our routines and our sense of time begins to blur and falter. Weekly engagement in nature helps anchor and ground ourselves to the present moment, facilitating a sense of regained mindful connection to time and space. This increased mindfulness (coupled with that added benefits of vital nutrients from the sun that improve mood) makes getting outside right now an easy choice if you want to spend some time focusing on your mental health.

Where do I go?

When this article was written NC Government continues to keep state parks open (and recommending that on the trails folks follow the CDC guidelines of remaining 6ft. apart from others when outside). Please continue to reference the updated CDC guidelines around outdoor activities when reading this article, as recommendations are evolving rapidly.

Those of us whom are privileged to live in the Triangle are able to access numerous hiking trails in the area.

Wherever you are, the best way to find a trail that works for you is to ask friends for recommendation or go online for lists of best hikes in the area. The All Trails application is a great free tool to download to search and filter the top-rated hikes based on your location.

If you can’t get to the trails, consider a sitting in a nice sunny patch of grass in your yard or garage. Even a 10-minute stroll around your neighborhood can boost your mood.

You don’t have to be an expert hiker but getting outside in a way that is safe and accessible to you feels important during this time of quarantine.

PlantsBringing Nature Inside

If you can’t get outside, indoor plants are great for your mental health too. Surrounding yourself and tending to indoor plants can not only improve the air quality in your home but help to stabilize your mood. With increased time indoors, maybe it’s time to transplant one of your houseplants into a bigger pot or give some extra TLC to a plant that needs some watering that you’ve been neglecting.

 

Nature Therapy is #Trending on Instagram

If you have an Instagram, then you’ve seen Animal Crossing posts or content about Stardew Valley…. newer trending video games reminiscent of games like Harvest MoonStardew ValleyThese video games situate the player 

Stardew Valley 2

in a virtual online community with their friends where they focus on being outside in nature and primarily working together to focus on farming, tending to animals, and building relationships. Player will encounter openly queer characters in these games and the ability to date and build non-heteronormative relationships.

It is no coincidence that during quarantine video games that allow us to escape into a virtual relationship with nature (while also connecting with friends) are trending. While ideally, we would like to spend some time each day outdoors for our mental health, distracting through the mindful use of video games is also an effective way to stabilize mood during quarantine.

Final Thoughts

Nature and the outdoors have always been there and will continue to be there way after this virus is done. While we struggle to focus on our mental health due to being stuck indoors, we must look outdoors. Nature can help our mental health at a time we need it most.

If you try these strategies and find you’re still struggling, CAPS 24/7 is available for UNC students at 919-966-3658. CAPS is also offering 2 digital support groups: a support group for UNC undergraduate seniors during COVID and a support group for any UNC student during COVID.

Additional Resources:

  • National Crisis Text Line: Text “TALK” to 741741 – National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK(8255)
  • If you are in crisis you can also call or text the LGBTQIA+ organization the Trevor Project
  • Subscribe to the UNC LGBT Center List Serv. to stay up to date with evens in Chapel Hill and the Triangle: 

Note on guidelines for social distancing: At time of publication the CDC still recommends social distancing (i.e. staying at least 6ft away from each other while exercising/hiking etc.. Please continue to review CDC guidelines for updated recommendations around COVID-19.

2 thoughts on “Naturally Queer: Nature’s role in queer mental heath from hiking to Animal Crossing

  1. caitlin April 14, 2020 / 11:09 am

    Love the inclusive comparisons of exploring the outdoors via hiking and outdoors via video games. My boyfriend was recently laid off because of COVID19 and has gotten into Stardew Valley as well. I think it’s giving him a place to put his energy and construct a daily schedule that is both calming and productive. Great read!

    Like

    • HealthyHeels May 26, 2020 / 9:25 am

      Thanks for your comment and for reading, Caitlin! Glad it was helpful for you.

      Like

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