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Local expert speaks on managing seasonal depression

The “winter blues” might be more than just blues, it could be seasonal depression, which is also known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

According to Mental Health America, in a given year, about 5% of the U.S. population experiences seasonal depression, and the prevalence of seasonal depression up to 10% of the population, depending on geographic region.

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that is related to changes in seasons. Symptoms of the seasonal depression tend to start and end at roughly the same time every year. In most cases, symptoms appear during the late fall or early winter months and stop during the spring or summer months.

Symptoms include feeling listless or sad throughout the day, a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyed, having low energy, oversleeping, feelings of hopelessness and more.

With the cold winters felt in Butler County, it “can have a major impact on our mental health, but also trauma and other more centralized experiences can combine these feelings into one ball of negative emotion,” the peer support manager and housing engagement specialist from the Grapevine Center Rich Blews said.

When it comes to finding help for any mental illness, it starts with utilizing support systems such as close friends and family, or forming new relationships.

“We can get so much from other people,” Blews said. “Someone listening and offering suggestions we may have not thought of, sharing some similar interests with others, creating new friendships and building socialization in a time of need.”

While the cause of seasonal depression is unknown, some factors that might be involved include circadian rhythm, where the decrease of sunlight may disrupt the body’s internal clock, as well as serotonin and melatonin levels.

A history of other mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, can increase the risk of seasonal depression.

Managing symptoms

While there is no way to prevent seasonal depression, there are steps that can be taken to manage symptoms.

During the winter months, some activities that used to be enjoyed cannot be done due to the weather. Blews encourages revisiting other activities that used to be enjoyed or have been on a to-do list for some time.

“There are plenty of opportunities during the offseason months to remaster that apple pie recipe or refinish that coffee table you have been putting off in your garage,” Blews said. “Outlets for wellness and coping can be right under our noses, but with some guidance and support, and a dash of resilience, we are able to create our wellness and remain well throughout the winter season.”

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, seasonal depression is treated with exposure to sunlight or light therapy when increasing the amount of natural sunlight is not possible, psychotherapy and antidepressants. Sometimes a combination of these treatments is necessary.

Blews also encourages smaller steps to help cope with symptoms of seasonal depression, such as talking to someone and doing activities with your hands, such as cooking, baking, crafting or building.

To better help loved ones during times of need, Blews suggests participating in similar activities and using support with the people they care about or live with that are diagnosed with seasonal depression to create relationship stability and build their “wellness toolbox.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine also suggests setting realistic goals by breaking large tasks into smaller ones and setting priorities, making an effort to be with other people and confide in them, and participating in activities that make you feel better, such as watching movies or participating in religious or social activities. People may also try exercising regularly, eating well-balanced meals and avoiding substance abuse.

People are encouraged to allow friends, family and other supports to provide help, and to seek professional help as soon as possible.

“Much like mental health as a general statement, I feel SAD is just as underestimated as mental health is,” Blews said. “Society has come a long way over the years regarding mental health in general — meaning awareness, diagnosis and treatment — but we have a lot more to do.”

To be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, consultations with a mental health care provider and questionnaires are necessary.

Criteria for a diagnosis include symptoms of major depression or more specific symptoms, depressive episodes must occur during specific seasons for at least two consecutive years, although it is not always the case that those with seasonal affective disorder experience symptoms yearly, and episodes must be more frequent than other depressive episodes that the person may have had throughout the year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

“You are not alone and there is never shame in asking for help, because help is there for you,” Blews said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. The toll-free hotline is available 24/7.

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