It’s October, and change is in the air. It’s time for us to say goodbye to the last warm days of summer and say hello to the crisp mornings and colorful leaves of fall, all the while preparing for the shorter days, frigid temperatures and white landscape of the winter soon to come. In Wyoming and Idaho, fall may be the most transitional time of year. In fact, it’s not uncommon to experience all three of these seasons in one day.
While some welcome the fall season with dreams of pumpkin spice lattes, cozy sweaters and growing excitement for upcoming holidays with family and friends, others respond to the change in season in quite a different manner… with mood changes and depression symptoms that are so severe and oppressive that it can force them into “hibernation” until spring. For these individuals, the fall and winter seasons trigger a type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) that follows a seasonal pattern. Typically, symptoms begin in late fall or early winter and last throughout the winter months, usually subsiding by spring or summer. The most difficult months for people with SAD tend to be January and February.
Some individuals experience the onset of SAD symptoms in the summer months, but it is far less common. In either case, symptoms tend to appear and end at the same time each year, with symptoms starting out mild and increasing in severity as the season progresses.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder include:
The exact cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder is unknown. However, it is suspected that the shorter days and reduced sunlight in the fall and winter months is to blame for winter-onset SAD. Decreased exposure to sunlight can cause disruptions in circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock), Vitamin D deficiency, and reduced levels of serotonin – all of which can lead to feelings of depression.
On the same note, the change in season can also disrupt the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a key role in sleep patterns. Darkness increases the production of melatonin, so as winter days get shorter, levels of melatonin increase, causing people with SAD to feel sleepier and more lethargic.
If you think you or a loved one may be experiencing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, it is important to seek medical advice to confirm that there are no underlying medical conditions that may be causing these symptoms. Once a professional diagnosis has been given, there are several treatment options that have proven effective in treating SAD, including:
Experts believe that this could be a particularly difficult winter for Seasonal Affective Disorder, given the isolating conditions that COVID-19 has caused. Depression and anxiety have been on the rise, with many people struggling with emotional and financial burdens brought on by the pandemic. In addition, the Farmer’s Almanac is predicting “colder and above normal snowfall this winter”, which will likely mean shorter, darker days and more time indoors. So, it seems that conditions are ripe for a particularly challenging SAD winter season. Make sure to practice self-care throughout the winter and check on those you love.
For more information or if you know of someone who may be at risk, please contact your local HCBH office. We are here to help. If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.
High Country Behavioral Health provides mental health and addiction services in Western Wyoming and Eastern Idaho.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1.800.662.4357 is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
Wyoming-Based Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK
Idaho Suicide Prevention 208-398-4357
National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255
Felix Torres, M.D., MBA, DFAPA, “Seasonal Affective Disorder”, American Psychiatric Association, October 2020,https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder
National Institute of Mental Health, “Seasonal Affective Disorder”, National Institute of Mental Health, March 2016. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml
Mayo Clinic, “Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)”, Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651
Mental Health First Aid, “Feeling SAD? It Could be Seasonal Affective Disorder”, Mental Health First Aid, December 15, 2017, https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/external/2017/12/seasonal-affective-disorder/