Mental health issues spike during winter, health officials say

December 16, 2018

Christmas time is often dubbed “the happiest time of year,” but it is also the time when a variety of illnesses associated with winter begin to take effect.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is one of those illnesses that specifically affects people during the winter months, when the weather is cold and the nights are long. SAD is a subtype of depression caused by lack of sunlight.

“It usually spikes in January and February,” said Whitney O’Connor, director of business development for Behavioral Health Services at Aiken Regional Medical Centers. “The research and studies show that it all has to do with sunlight, and lack of sunlight.”

According to O’Connor, this is also the busiest time of year for the Aurora Pavilion at ARMC. Aurora Pavilion Behavioral Health Services is an acute care crisis stabilization program offering short-term inpatient hospitalization, partial hospitalization and adult intensive outpatient treatment programs.

SAD is “much less common” during summer and spring months, when there are typically long hours of sunlight, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Lighting has been shown to have a very strong affect on people’s sleep patterns, Vitamin D absorption and moods.

“It messes with our rhythms, our biochemistry ... it’s more prone to happen to women than men,” O’Connor said.

Although lack of sunlight is a primary factor in most cases of SAD, there are also other elements that can lead to depression during winter.

Weather is one factor. Colder temperatures, rain and snow can make spending time outside difficult and can decrease motivation to leave the home. It can also make outdoor exercise difficult; exercise helps produce endorphins.

“When it’s cold, we’re not going to go outside as much,” O’Connor said. “We’re not going to go for walks, we’re not going to go work out. We eat more. We even have more carb cravings during this time of year.”

When daily activities are hampered, particularly those that involve self-care, depression can worsen.

Symptoms of SAD typically include those found in most types of depression: decreased motivation, fatigue and irritability. SAD is also characterized by excessive sleep, though in some cases people report sleeping less than usual.

The first step to treating SAD is to receive an official diagnosis from a medical professional. If a patient is diagnosed, there are a variety of ways to treat the disorder.

A common way to combat SAD is light therapy. Light therapy lamps can be set up in a workplace and are used to try to alleviate SAD with direct artificial lighting.

According to O’Connor, the recommendation is to use the lamps for a few hours each day, but patients can leave them on as long as need be.

Counseling is used to treat various types of depression.

“Some people who know they will experience this each year will set up counseling ahead of times,” O’Connor said. ”... Stress is definitely a factor during the holidays, so it helps with that, too.”

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