You haven’t lived in Canada if you haven’t heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the form of depression that typically occurs during the winter months when the temperature drops and the days are much shorter. significantly less sunlight to be found.
But while you may have heard of it, that doesn’t mean science is any closer to understanding why the drop in sunlight affects some people the way it does.
That’s why it’s important to have a bag of tricks to deal with the sadness that comes like seasonal clockwork, and a place to call when it feels like it’s all too much.
Laura-Leigh Gillard is the Regional Warm Line co-ordinator with the Northern Initiative for Social Action (NISA) and previous to that, she spent five years as a peer support worker on the Warm Line.
“The Regional Warm Line is a peer-run telephone support service staffed by a diverse team of workers who identify as having lived experience with mental health challenges of their own,” Gillard told Sudbury.com.
The Warm Line operates 365 days a year, from 6 p.m. to midnight and offers what’s known as “pre-crisis telephone support” to anyone who’s struggling and looking for support.
“Some of the experiences our callers may choose to discuss are, mental health concerns — including seasonal affective disorder — loneliness, anxiety or depression, substance use, employment or relationship issues, homelessness, or traumas associated with physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.”
One of the biggest triggers for Seasonal Affective Disorder is the reduced exposure to sunlight, which Gillard said can cause a decrease in serotonin, and that can lead to depression.
“Persons experiencing SAD often report changes to their mood, appetite, sleep, and energy levels, which can often take its toll on personal relationships, social life, employment, or education,” said Gillard. “Persons struggling with SAD might also report feeling sluggish or agitated, experience changes in their weight or appetite, have difficulty concentrating, or even experience thoughts of self-harm or suicide.”
Gillard does note that if you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, “call your local crisis center, 911, or go to your local emergency room for help.”
In terms of that bag of tricks for dealing with the disorder, learning to lessen the symptoms is about embracing the light, seeking counseling, exercise and perhaps even medication.
As a first step, Gillard recommends getting in touch with your doctor. “If you think you might be suffering from seasonal affective disorder, I recommend booking an appointment with your family doctor, as they can help rule out any other causes for symptoms such as potential thyroid problems or other types of undiagnosed health concerns.”
From there, you can try some of the common treatments shown to help lessen the symptoms.
Exposure to light therapy, otherwise known as phototherapy, involves sitting near a special kind of light for approximately 30 minutes a day. Gillard reports that it can be highly effective.
“It has been shown to be effective in up to 85 per cent of SAD cases,” she said.
Light therapy aims to replace the missing daylight of winter through exposure to bright light that simulates natural outdoor light.
“Through daily exposure, one can suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin which can make one feel more alert, less drowsy and melancholy,” said Gillard. “The timing and length of exposure needed can vary according to one’s personal symptoms and circadian rhythm, so it is recommended to seek guidance from your doctor or mental health professional.”
Medication has also proven to be helpful in treating various types of depression, as well as working with a counselor and learning to use cognitive behaviour therapy (known as CBT). including SAD. Counseling or therapy may also be used in conjunction with other treatments such as medication, and, or light therapy.
And finally, what can help is self-care, as well as staying connected to others, even through the NISA Warm Line.
“Staying connected to others, regular exercise, a balanced diet, and good sleep habits have also been shown to reduce the symptoms of depression,” said Gillard. “If you think you might be experiencing SAD, or if you are having a hard time managing your moods, one of the most effective strategies can be to reach out for help. Sometimes the feelings we are dealing with can become too much to handle on our own. Please know you are not alone; you don’t have to face these feelings by yourself.”
You can reach the Warm Line at 1-866-856-9276 (WARM) or learn about the other programs and services offered at NISA by visiting their website here.
Jenny Lamothe is a reporter at Sudbury.com. Coping is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.