BY NICOLE NEMETH
During the winter months it’s not uncommon for people to feel a little gloomy, especially after the holiday season is over.
However, some people are more vulnerable to a deeper sadness, a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern. This condition is called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, as it is more commonly known.
According to Dr. Robert Levitan, a senior scientist who works in the mood and anxiety disorders program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, two to five per cent of Canadians suffer a severe chronic form of seasonal depression, 10 to 15 per cent will have a milder form and about 25 to 35 per cent will have the “winter blues.”
Although SAD can affect anyone, adults are at a higher risk than children, and women are up to 80 per cent more likely to report having SAD than men. Also, people who live in northern countries, like Canada, are more likely to experience the disorder because the amount of daylight received changes in the winter months.
“I was never officially diagnosed with SAD, but I was diagnosed with depression during the winter when I was 17 years old. I came to the realization that it was seasonal once summer came,” said Victoria (a pseudonym), 20.
People who suffer from SAD often experience similar emotions related to clinical depression.
“What my depression feels like is a persistent sense of hopelessness; I am completely stuck living a terrible life. When the winter is especially long, just as it seems the snow will never melt, it feels like I’ll be sad forever,” Victoria said.
These emotions often include feelings of hopelessness, fatigue, change in appetite, loss of interests and hobbies, withdrawal from friends and family, trouble concentrating, thoughts of suicide and crying or feeling like crying.
“My sleeping pattern becomes very inconsistent,” Victoria said. “I’m unable to fall asleep at night despite feeling exhausted. Then it’s incredibly difficult to wake up in the morning. It’s just constant fatigue. Consistently feeling tired, sore, cranky. I typically gain a lot of weight in the winter, I crave a lot of unhealthy foods. My self-esteem is a lot lower than it normally is and I develop a negative body image.”
There are ways for people who suffer from SAD to cope and treat their depression, light therapy and antidepressant medication being the most common. Of course, anyone who feels depressed during the winter months should let their family doctor know so they can begin to prescribe whichever treatment is necessary for that individual.
“I took Prozac but that didn’t help me at all. I’d like to explore more medication options if I can’t beat it on my own,” Victoria said.
Light therapy is the most often used treatment of SAD in milder cases. Some people feel that they can get a good amount of natural light to help treat their disorder on their own, but in the winter months it may not be possible due to the shorter amount of daylight.
“The most important coping method for me is consistently reminding myself that everything in life is temporary. Bad things come to an end, too. I try to focus on the amazing summer I just had and plan for the next one. Also, forcing myself to stay busy and active to keep my mind occupied. If I don’t want to leave my room I try to get out and do something, even if it’s running errands,” Victoria said.
Since every person is different their treatment will be, too; what works for one person may not work for another.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association there are still things that anyone can do to help themselves feel better: regular exercise, a healthy diet, good sleep habits, staying connected to friends and family, balanced thinking techniques and managing stress. The Canadian Mental Health Association also recommends that if people are experiencing SAD they should try to spend more time outdoors during the day to get natural sunlight, maximize sunlight when indoors, keep lamps and lights on when it’s dark outside and if all else fails, take a vacation to a sunnier climate.
“Eating healthy is very, very important, too,” said Victoria, “I can’t take care of my mind without taking care of my body. Finally, I remind myself that I am loved. I have an amazing partner and an incredibly supportive group of friends, but most of all I love myself and deserve to be happy.”
There is still a stigma against clinical depression, including SAD.
The results of a survey completed by the Canadian Medical Association in 2008 revealed that 46 per cent of people believe that diagnosis of mental illness is an “excuse for poor behaviour and personal feelings,” 50 per cent of the people surveyed believe that depression is not a serious condition and 42 per cent would no longer socialize with a friend diagnosed with mental illness.
In more recent years, more people have begun to speak out against the stigma attached to mental illness, including depression and SAD. Last year, Olympic champion Clara Hughes teamed up with Bell for the Bell Let’s Talk campaign to help build greater awareness and acceptance toward mental health and depression.
“I don’t necessarily advertise it, but I don’t have any qualms when it comes to talking about it,” Victoria said. “There’s such a stigma against mental health. I think it’s important to keep the conversation going and raise awareness. No one should be ashamed of having to deal with depression. If someone is physically sick they get sympathy and support, but society condemns the mentally ill. That needs to change.”
If you feel that you are suffering from depression or SAD don’t be afraid to seek help either through a trusted friend, family doctor or counsellor.