Not just ‘winter blues’; SAD needs to be taken seriously in mental health

Last Thursday, Jan. 28 was Bell Let’s Talk Day, which broke record numbers this year, raising over $6 million for mental health. Though the campaign officially raises money for mental health initiatives through the number of texts and tweets sent that day, it also provides a platform for individuals to speak out about their mental illness. One such mental illness which many may currently be experiencing is seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD is a subtype of major depression that coincides with a change in season. Most individuals experience depressive symptoms during the winter or fall. These symptoms then tend to alleviate during the spring and summer – particularly on sunny days – thereby causing the seasonal pattern. Though it is less common, some individuals experience the opposite pattern, with depressive symptoms occurring in the spring and summer. Either way, it is important to recognize that this is not simply “the winter blues,” but a legitimate mental illness which deserves recognition.

Because SAD is a subtype of major depression, it often exhibits overlapping symptoms such as extremely low energy levels, a sense of worthlessness, loss of interest in activities, difficulty concentrating, thoughts of suicide and more. Symptoms of winter SAD may also include weight gain, craving high-carbohydrate foods, hypersensitivity to rejection, irritability, a heavy feeling in one’s arms or legs, and oversleeping. Conversely, summer SAD often involves weight loss, poor appetite, anxiety and trouble sleeping.

There are still many theories about what exactly causes SAD. Some believe it to be related to one’s biological clock (circadian rhythm) and how a loss of sunlight in the winter months might affect it. Limited sunlight can also reduce the amount of serotonin in the body, which is an important neurotransmitter involved with mood regulation. Additionally, changes in season can affect sleep patterns through the hormone melatonin. These sleep abnormalities may also affect mood and lead to seasonal depressive symptoms.

One method of treatment for SAD is to place special lightboxes in one’s room that turn on in the morning and at night. These boxes are much brighter than normal lamps and thereby extend the short days of winter. This treatment alleviates symptoms in 70 per cent of SAD cases. Those it does not work for often take antidepressants to alleviate symptoms. As young adults, we are at the highest risk for developing SAD. Though it is natural to have a bad day, when an intense lack of energy and feelings of depression persist for days in a row it is important to contact your doctor. This way, you can be properly assessed and receive the care you need.

No matter what we may be going through, we should always be able to talk about our mental health. Our society should be working to support the grossly underfunded mental health initiatives in Canada, and Bell Let’s Talk Day is just one way of doing that. We should all be fighting to remove the stigma that still persists in the workplace, school and our daily lives. We need to make stigma a part of the conversation in order to one day overcome it. Let’s talk about stigma. Let’s talk about mental health.

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