It's the time of year when joyful music is piped into every
store in America, decorative lights adorn houses in every
neighborhood, stockings are hung with care, and presents are
shopped for and then wrapped with love for the people we care most
about. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.
Except for when it is anything but the most wonderful time of
the year. For some people, this time of year is also associated
with feelings of depression, tension, and stress, as well as mood
changes and problems sleeping. Although sometimes brushed off as
simply the "winter blues," according to research, approximately 11
million people in the United States suffer from a form of
seasonal affective disorder, which is also appropriately known
SAD often strikes in the fall or early winter and can last until
March or April. Three out
of every four people with SAD are women. Symptoms typically
first appear for people with SAD when they are between the ages of
18 and 30, and SAD is more common in areas of the country where
winter temperatures are colder and there are fewer sunny winter
Although it remains unclear what exactly causes SAD, researchers
believe it is likely a mix of decreased sunlight during the fall
and winter months, which can cause a drop in serotonin
levels, which in turn can cause depression, and a change in the
balance, which can affect sleep patterns and mood.
Form many people who struggle with SAD,
phototherapy (also called light box therapy) may be an
effective form of treatment. According to Mayo Clinic, phototherapy
"mimics outdoor light" and "researchers believe this type of light
causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and
eases other symptoms of SAD." Other treatment options include
antidepressants (some doctors may recommend starting medication
before symptoms begin if your depression is recurring) and
psychotherapy, which can help you cope with SAD and learn how to
better manage stress and feelings of depression.
So ok, there's an explanation for why your friend, your sister,
or your husband is feeling and acting out of sorts this winter.
Great. But now what?
It can be hard to know how to help someone who suffers from
depression or another mental illness, especially if you've never
experienced something similar before. Out of fear of saying the
"wrong thing," people often end up saying nothing. Or worse, some
people approach the situation with
"a lack of empathy and knowledge" about mental illness and
assert that mental illness, including depression, is something that
can be controlled.
Last month, theHuffington Postpublished an enlightening cartoon
by Robot Hugs that depicts what would happen if we treated mental
illness in the same manner that we treat physical illness.
Depression, whether seasonal or all year round, is an important
issue, and changing the way we talk about mental illness is an
important first step in changing the way mental illness is viewed
in this country. It is my hope that if health communicators take
the lead in starting a dialog about mental illness, including
associated stigma, signs and symptoms, and treatment options, maybe
someone with SAD won't feel quite as sad this winter.