For many Canadians, a look outside their window this week will reveal a gloomy sight. Grey skies are all too common in the winter months when the days are shorter than ever. So is seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), SAD is a type of seasonal depression.
“Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that occurs during the same season each year. It usually happens in the fall or winter, but some people may experience season-linked symptoms in the summer,” the CAMH website says.
Dr. Robert Levitan is the Cameron Parker Holcombe Wilson Chair in Depression Studies at CAMH and the University of Toronto, and a professor of psychiatry at U of T.
“SAD is a tendency for some people during the fall and winter, as the days get very short, to experience symptoms of depression,” he told Global News. It can have clear signs, Dr. Levitan said.
“(People have) feelings of fatigue, loss of interest in activities, social withdrawal. Another part of it is overeating. There’s a lot of people whose primary problem is that they crave carbohydrates and other foods and gain a lot of weight.”
He added, “(Symptoms include) oversleeping, overeating, feeling sluggish, not being able to get going in the morning and then negative thinking. For some people, it can even get into suicidal thinking if they have other risk factors for depression.”
The Canadian Psychological Association says SAD or Depression with Seasonal Pattern is a condition that comes and goes based on seasonal changes, appearing in the fall and going away in the spring/summer.
“People who get this, get it every year at the same time, and they start to anticipate it. And so it becomes a recurrent form of depression. And then just like it starts on its own, it goes away on its own, of course, at some point when the days get brighter,” Dr. Levitan said.
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A significant number of Canadians are affected by SAD every year.
“It is estimated that SAD makes up 10% of all reported cases of depression. Approximately 15% of Canadians will report at least a mild case of SAD in their lifetime, while 2-3% will report serious cases,” according to the Canadian Psychological Association. “People with a family history of any form of depression may also be at risk of developing SAD. Canadians are particularly at risk, as we have decreased sunlight during the winter months.”
Dr. Levitan cautions people against self-diagnosing, instead urging people to speak to their primary-care physician. SAD, he said, is distinct from what some people refer to as “Winter Blues”.
“The winter blues are a wave of low emotions that come with these cold, dark days,” the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) states on its website, “You may have heard people referring to this as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but the winter blues and SAD are two different things.”
Health Matters: Seasonal affective disorder
So with winter solstice behind us and the days getting longer, does it mean people suffering from SAD are in the clear? Not quite, said Dr. Levitan.
“There’s a lag of about two months (after winter solstice). The worst time of year is usually February. And then it starts to get better. And the best month is usually May-June and so forth in terms of mood.”
He added that the stress of the holiday season, which can be a difficult time for many for different reasons, can have a compounding effect on SAD.
SAD treatment options — and misconceptions
A common misconception, Dr. Levitan said, was that having regular Vitamin D can help with SAD.
“There’s no evidence that vitamin D works for seasonal affective disorder that I’m aware of,” he said, “It’s probably relevant to your general physical health. So, it’s still a good idea to supplement if you have low levels.”
He said, however, that there are treatments available. This includes light therapy, where patients of SAD are exposed to commercially available lights. He said two out of three patients respond to light therapy and don’t necessarily require medication.
He recommends only using light therapy “under the supervision of a doctor and to make sure its ultraviolet filtered, meaning that the ultraviolet component of the light is taken out because ultraviolet light is very dangerous to your eye.”
CMHA recommends people “get outside during the day if you can, keep your curtains open, and when indoors, spend as much time as you can near the windows. Even if it’s cloudy, getting some daylight can help boost your mood.”
Maintaining regular exercise and sleep schedules can be crucial to battling SAD too. But the most important thing, CMHA states, is to be kind to yourself.
“Battling low moods is no easy feat, and it’s important to be kind to yourself. You’re stronger than you think. Remember to have regular check-ins with yourself, and to spend that extra time on self-care if you need to,” CMHA said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help. For immediate mental health support, call 988. For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention at suicideprevention.ca. Learn more about preventing suicide with these warning signs and tips on how to help.
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