JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska –
Winter can be challenging for many people in Alaska. The temperatures drop, the sun disappears for long periods of time, and feelings of isolation can settle in like an unwelcomed guest. This may be especially true for those transplanted from other states.
While some Alaska National Guardsmen are born-and-raised Alaskans, many are from the lower 48 and are less accustomed to harsh winters.
Gwendolyn Anderson, the psychological health director for the Alaska Army National Guard, is a licensed social worker whose passion for helping those in the military community shows through the care and attention she gives to Soldiers.
In her nearly three years as the AKARNG director of psychological health, Anderson provides Soldiers and their families with as many helpful resources as possible. She tailors each counseling session with her clients and helps them come up with their own solutions.
“I’ve been on the flip side where I’ve shown up and immediately been given 10 different resources, and you can walk away feeling very overwhelmed,” she explained. “I truly appreciate having a conversation with a service member about themselves or their family members because it helps me identify the need and the appropriate resource.”
So, how can Soldiers maintain a healthy mental state while living in a dark and cold place? The first thing Anderson suggests is to take a personal inventory, which involves checking how each component of one’s life is measuring up.
For example, if a Soldier is not actively engaging in physical activity, that is something that can hinder their mental health. To combat this, Anderson suggests finding a winter-time physical activity that Soldiers and their families can enjoy together such as cross-country skiing, snowboarding or ice skating.
When the weather is unfavorable, she noted that there are opportunities to revive old hobbies or find new ones. Some examples of these are puzzles, reading or crafting. Some other activities can include learning a new skill such as cooking, pottery or painting.
When picking an indoor activity however, she emphasized the importance of finding something that will stimulate the mind.
“It’s not uncommon that when people get home, they immediately turn on the TV or scroll through their phone,” she said. “It burns time, but it doesn’t do much for stimulating the mind. It can lead to a cycle of just feeling sluggish.”
If a family is new to Alaska, it can be hard to make friends right away. Smart phone apps such as “Meet Up” or “Next Door” are a way to meet new friends that have common interests, which can help prevent the feeling of isolation. There are also Facebook groups that are offered for people with common interests.
These are all ways to help improve a Soldier’s mental health, not just during the winter months but year-round in Alaska. However, when things start to get difficult, Anderson emphasized the value of talking to someone they trust right away.
This can be a counselor, the unit ministry team, a pastor or priest or anyone a Soldier trusts.
According to Anderson, a common trend in most military communities is most service members attempt to handle their problems alone. This could be a result of past behavioral patterns or being told to “Suck it up, buttercup” as the popular phrase goes.
Despite whatever a Soldier or their family is going through, Anderson wants everyone to remember there is always someone there for them.
“What I really hope to get out there is that I don’t want us to be a resource just in times of crisis,” she said. “We are here to provide that support and connection to different resources when you or a family member first start feeling off.”
Resources available to Soldiers and their families
National Veterans Crisis Line:
Dial ‘988’, then press ‘1’ or text ‘838255’
AKNG Family and Warrior Services:
AKNG State Chaplain:
CH (COL) Ted McGovern, 907-854-1964 or email@example.com
AKARNG Full Time Support Chaplain:
CH (CPT) Blake Hart, 907-854-1885 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Outdoor and Indoor Activity Resources:
JBER Life: https://jberlife.com
Ft. Wainwright: https://wainwright.armymwr.com
Ft. Greely: https://greely.armymwr.com
*Check your local churches or community centers’ websites to see what activities they have to offer for you and your family.