Are people in the Maritimes less cheerful in November than people in Venezuela? Are residents of Thunder Bay, Ont. more likely to find January unbearable than someone in Kenya?
Apparently so. Geography is a factor in seasonal affective disorder (SAD). According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, this major depressive disorder is “extremely rare in those living within 30 degrees of the Equator, where daylight hours are long, constant and extremely bright.”
Unfortunately, here in the Great White North, some people become depressed in the darker, colder months. Not to be confused with the common “winter blues,” SAD can be severe and debilitating.
“There’s a continuum that happens with SAD,” says Barbara Everett, PhD, a researcher for the Mood Disorders Society of Canada. “When it is on the far end of the continuum it is indeed a disorder.”
SAD affects two to three per cent of Canadians. It may begin at any age but most commonly between 18 and 30 years. Women are more prone to it than men, and children and adolescents are also vulnerable.
No one is entirely sure of the exact cause. Studies show that when there is less light (including night-time), the brain produces melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel drowsy. SAD may be related to increased levels of melatonin and to decreased levels of serotonin, the brain’s natural “feel-good” chemical.
There is sunnier news: Knowing the nature of the disorder can make it easier to treat.
“When people notice in winter months they slip into a deep depression but then inexplicably perk up over the summer months, that helps them understand there are different things they can do than with a standard type of depression,” Everett says.
The symptoms of SAD include lethargy, depression, sadness, despair, irritability, sleepiness, inability to concentrate, lack of energy or motivation, cravings for sweets and weight gain. SAD can rob people of the energy and motivation to work. Some seek counseling or take antidepressants. The majority of people with symptoms of SAD, however, benefit from non-medical treatment.
“We clinicians always start with the sensible things before we haul out the big guns,” says Everett. These non-medical interventions can help:
Anyone with greater than mild symptoms of depression, regardless of season, should not hesitate to seek help. And remember, SAD can be conquered, and summer will return.
Michelle Morra-Carlisle has written professionally for almost 20 years, at a federal government agency, for a trade magazine publisher and most recently as a freelancer. She enjoys the ever-changing nature of freelance work and the variety of topics she gets to cover - from jewellery design to schizophrenia - and has won several awards for her articles. Michelle is especially pleased to be covering health, fitness and wellness for Primacy.ca and says that with each article, she picks up valuable tips for improving her own health and lifestyle.