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Why Hunting Is More Important Than Ever for Your Mental Health
The author’s son and younger brother on the opening day of dove season. (Joe Genzel/)
It’s September 1, and my head is on a swivel, frantically looking in every direction for doves. Finally, I see the flitter of wings. Doves either fly like fighter jets shot out of a cannon or float along through the air, riding the wind. This one is high, but straight up, just cruising. My ass is already sore from sitting on a plastic five-gallon bucket, so I stand quickly to shoot, but fumble the safety. I haven’t clicked one over since spring turkey season, and when I finally push the button, the weight of months spent separated from friends and family fades away. The familiar feeling of a wooden stock to my meaty cheek is comforting. I slap the trigger and a gigantic puff of white feathers plumes from the bird’s chest. The best months of the year are here again, and it’s about damn time.
Like the rest of you, my life looks very different than it did before COVID-19 hit. For weeks in March and April, I only left my house when necessary, sheltering in place with my wife and 6-year-old son. I live in an urban area, but have access to hiking trails and my parent’s farm, so I relied on those places when I needed a break from these challenging times.
I am fortunate to have outdoor spaces to roam. Because many folks in big towns and cities were virtually trapped in their apartments for months, or lived in fear of stepping outside as social unrest led to violence and looting on the streets of major cities across the U.S. It has been stressful and unsettling for us all; more so for people of color and the tens of millions of Americans who are jobless due to the pandemic. We are facing unprecedented challenges in a time when the future of our country remains uncertain.
That’s why I feel so lucky to be a hunter right now, too. It’s been proven that going outside is good for us. And I plan on doing a lot of it this fall, just like many of you. We can finally get the hell away from the negativity this pandemic has brought with it, and go hunt.
But just getting into the woods isn’t enough for every hunter—myself included—to be happy. This pandemic has made me hyper-cognizant of the importance of my own mental health. A little background: When my son was born almost seven years ago, I hadn’t thought much about how my actions and my frame of mind affect other people and my own wellbeing. I wasn’t prepared for the added responsibilities of parenthood, and my wife encouraged me to seek therapy. I didn’t want to, but eventually I saw that the frustrations and anger caused by the stresses of work and life itself were impacting my family in a bad way. I had to make a change.
I have seen the novel coronavirus magnify the mental anguish some of my friends who hunt were struggling with even before the pandemic hit. And I have had my own breaking points as well. My wife had to quarantine for a week by herself, and all three of us (myself, wife, and son) quarantined together for another week after she was exposed to co-workers who had tested positive for the virus. It was incredibly worrisome wondering if we were all asymptomatic and difficult to remain so isolated. It made me question why in the hell we stayed home and did our best to follow all the CDC guidelines since the start of COVID-19, while many others did not.
Losing connections with those we hold closest is painful, and it can lead to bouts of depression. (I know it did for me.) I have older hunting buddies who have fallen into despair because the pandemic stopped them from going to the gun range or having morning coffee at the town café to commiserate with life-long friends. COVID-19 has taken some of those people away forever. Relationships helped keep their spirits up , but too many folks are alone now, and often too proud to admit they need help.
I think hunters are less inclined to recognize how much the realities of everyday life—not to mention a months-long pandemic that doesn’t seem to have an end in sight—cause us stress. In my experience, hunters—particularly men—seem to think counseling, prescribed medications, or simply talking about how they’re feeling are signs of weakness.
But here’s the reality: All of the above made me a better man and a better father. My wife finds me infinitely more tolerable, even though I still leave all the cupboards open every time I go into the kitchen. If COVID-19 had arrived when I didn’t have the mental fortitude I do now, it could have sent me into a tailspin. Therapy has made life more livable for me: I became more self-aware, and it gave me the tools to deal with the mental hurdles I must face when life starts to suck. If you too are struggling, I encourage you to seek a mental health professional or find someone to talk to whom you trust. Try starting here. It’s not as daunting a task as you think, and it doesn’t mean you’re not a strong person. Don’t ever let your ego prevent you from working to become the best version of yourself.
I am thankful to be an outdoorsman. Getting outside and recharging is important. We all need that connection to wild places. It’s why we do what we do. And I am eager for October to arrive; to be in the marsh, standing next to old friends, and calling to sky-high ducks...hopefully we will trick a few into the decoys.