There’s light in the darkness. As cold weather starts to creep across much of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s compounding the mental health woes of 2020 — from the pandemic to political strife. But despite Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s prediction of a “dark winter” ahead, there’s hope too. Today we’re introducing you to the coping mechanisms, the global innovators and the creative thinkers who will help us overcome the difficult months ahead.
Acute stress and depression are on the rise amid the pandemic, with lockdowns, job losses and excessive media consumption contributing to the problem. Not to mention the fear of sickness, or death. The hardest hit? Generation Z, as more than 7 in 10 of 18- to 23-year-olds have reported common symptoms of depression; unpaid caregivers, 30 percent of whom considered suicide in the prior month according to a recent study; and Black women, 63 percent of whom said their mental health was damaged by the pandemic. But there has been one counterintuitive finding: Suicide rates stayed flatin Massachusetts in the early pandemic months.
2. Weather Warning
Seasonal affective disorder strikes around 10 million Americans each year, with symptoms such as oversleeping, weight gain and lethargy that hit when seasons change and the weather gets colder. Experts predict a heavier load this year, as many of the socially distanced outdoor activities that helped us through the pandemic become unavailable (or at least far less comfortable). Everything from journaling to light therapy can be helpful to brave the blues.
It’s the last thing the world needs amid its myriad crises — but the prospects of a military conflict are getting stronger each week, with multiple hot spots simmering all at once. Over the weekend, Turkey announced plans to extend its exploration of oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, despite heightened tensions with Greece and Cyprus, both of which have accused Ankara of encroaching into parts of the sea that they alone have the right to exploit economically under international law. Russia, Israel and the U.S. are all trying to defuse those tensions — in ways that benefit them. But that’s hardly the only war scenario hovering over the winter of 2020. Nuclear powers India and China remain locked in a standoff over their disputed Himalayan border. Chinese and U.S. jets are teasing one another over the Taiwan Strait. The Taliban has given up its pretense of a cease-fire in Afghanistan. And a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan could shatter any day.
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From Tampa to Tulsa, Syracuse to Seattle, and Brooklyn to Burlington, cities have embraced sidewalk dining as the way to keep restaurants open while reducing the risk of COVID-19 spreading in closed spaces. Now, as winter approaches, the food industry is innovating again — this time to keep those outdoor spaces functional when the temperature drops. Chicago launched a competition in the fall for outdoor dining designs that drew more than 600 entries from around the world. The winners: Japan’s traditional low heated table, the kotatsu; cabins modeled on ice-fishing huts; and heated, block-shaped seating units with curtains to shield diners from the wind.
It’s an advantage of geography. Unlike North America, Europe, Asia and large parts of Africa, the Southern Hemisphere has already endured its winter of 2020, battling COVID-19 along the way. And while no country can truly claim success against the pandemic, South Africa and Australia managed to significantly curb cases of regular flu — using hard lockdowns, the flu vaccine and school closures. That allowed medical facilities to focus on coronavirus cases. Unless the Northern Hemisphere learns these lessons, it could be staring at a “twindemic” — a deadly cocktail of the regular flu and COVID-19 that could knock medical systems off their feet.
4. Bang On, Bangladesh
The country’s capital, Dhaka, is the most densely populated city in the world. That should have been a recipe for disaster amid the pandemic. Instead, Bangladesh has seen a death rate that’s among the lowest in the world. Its secret sauce: a bouquet of tech solutions including telemedicine and mobile tracking that have helped the country deliver medical assistance to remote areas and ensure its limited resources reach the most vulnerable. It’s a model others could learn from.
Yes, addictive games have in the past been associated with mental health challenges, fewer real-world friends and poorer performance at school. Now, with real-world friends hard to meet and significant parts of the global education system still online, that same industry could play savior. From Sea of Solitude to Depression Quest, designers are building a growing number of games that specifically help players grapple with mental health challenges. Poland even introduced gaming into its school curriculum during lockdowns. Parents, what you thought was your kid’s worst enemy could in fact prove to be a vital friend.
6. Winter Patios
There’s a reason winter is flu season. As we stay indoors in closed spaces, the chances of transmitting the infection increases. But what if we could move our cozy living room fireplace to an outdoor, winter patio? That’s one among a series of steps that Edmonton, Alberta, one of Canada’s coldest cities, took some years ago, and it has transformed a community of more than 1 million people that previously went into hibernation during winter into a population that relishes the great outdoors in freezing temperatures. The city provides financial and other support to businesses to set up outdoor patios, offers advice for turning gardens into floral landscapes even in the snow and distributes “winter excitement” guides for residents and visitors. In 2020, the lessons are obvious: If cities can keep residents outdoors longer during the winter months, they’ll be better positioned to curb the pandemic.
The famed creator of Dear White People joins Carlos to discuss his new film, Bad Hair, a horror movie about a bloodsucking weave that has political relevance you may not expect. Justin Simien, a Hollywood “overnight” success, tells Carlos how embracing his Blackness and queerness helped him break through. He also shares his best advice for other young storytellers.
Similar to Edmonton, New Delhi’s strategy preceded the pandemic — in fact, it isn’t specific to winter. But the Indian capital’s pathbreaking new approach to education has lessons the rest of the world could use in a year when young people have seen their habits upended. Around 1 million schoolchildren take part in daily 45-minute classes that start with meditation, after which they read and listen to one another’s stories. They call it the happiness curriculum, and it’s even more useful with virtual classrooms when young children are unable to interact in person. First lady Melania Trump enjoyed a session when she visited the city in February, and Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan, the UAE and Colombia are among the countries eager to borrow the curriculum aimed at reducing stress and building life skills.
If your city doesn’t give you many options for safe outdoor activities during the winter, turn up your virtual game. No, not social media. We mean virtual tours of museums and parks. If you’re craving travel, take a peek at WindowSwap, an awesome pandemic-era innovation where users from around the world submit short videos of the view from their windows. Get transported to Goa and Geneva, Casablanca and Christchurch, all from your living room couch.
3. Social Media Detox
The American Psychological Association has found that over 60 percent of Republicans and nearly 80 percent of Democrats are stressed about the current political climate in the United States. And a Gartner study published in February revealed nearly half of Americans were sidetracked at work by the upcoming U.S. presidential election. A simple solution to keep calm: Stop doomscrolling. Sure, connecting with a couple of good friends in a meaningful way can help you relax, but social media can be an overwhelming and hostile place that unnecessarily triggers the stress response.
Do you hate using traditional mental health apps that are supposed to calm your mind? If so, we have a solution for you: Check out the new AI-based chatbot apps that act as your therapist — with a twist. Apps such as Youper, Wysa, Replika and Woebot ask questions and assess your responses (again, like a friend) with the goal of lessening your anxiety. And they aim to do it within minutes.
The past decade or so has minted a new type of celebrity: the TED Talk master. Adam Grant qualifies in the top tier, as the author and organizational psychologist has become the culture-defining puppet master for the likes of Google. His killer advice for dealing with the pandemic comes via an astronaut (who knows a thing or two about remote work): Finish this time with “the same energy and enthusiasm” as when it began.
Belarus has been in a state of turmoil for quite some time. But people are not ready to give in despite arrests and tortures. In a recent letter, Belarusian political prisoner Viktor Babariko stated that he has been giving English lessons to his cellmates. Philosopher Olga Shparaga, who was recently released from jail, taught her fellow inmates philosophy. Julia Mickevich taught feminism, tweeted Belarus expert and Atlantic Council non-resident fellow Hanna Liubakova. That’s something to take inspiration from.
3. Breaking the Caste
With the recent gang rape of a 19-year-old girl from an oppressed class in India sparking outrage, the country has started thinking about caste more than ever. But what happens when mental health collides with caste identity? Divya Kandukuri knows it all too well. About 80 percent of India’s population belongs to historically disadvantaged castes and tribes or religious minorities. And yet, there aren’t any support systems. That’s why she created Blue Dawn — a mental health support and facilitation group targeting the intergenerational trauma of these communities, whom she refers to as Bahujan — literally, “the many.” It’s the first initiative of its kind in India. And we can only hope Kandukuri inspires more people to take the leap of faith.
This isn’t therapy by TikTok, but it’s close. Clinical psychologist Janine Kreft works with veterans by day as a telemedicine specialist, but she’s also an emerging influencer on everyone’s favorite short-form video app. Kreft’s role-playing TikToks have proved to be a hit during the pandemic as she guides a younger audience than her usual clients through the ins and outs of breathing, meditation and “navigating your inner landscape.”