The shift from summer to autumn in Canada is always beautiful. Shades of green give way to brilliant reds, oranges and yellows; the evenings grow longer and a gradual chill slips into the air. But while fall is a favourite time of year for many, it can be a difficult period for individuals who struggle with their mental health. This is colloquially referred to as the “September blues,” but an onset of depression during this month could actually be a sign of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — a condition that seriously disrupts the lives of as many as three percent of Canadians.
Like major depression (also called clinical depression), SAD is a complex mood disorder that can result in pronounced feelings of despair, hopelessness and guilt. It many also cause agitation, irritability, a lack of interest and focus, withdrawal from loved ones, disturbed sleep patterns and other symptoms. Unlike major depression, SAD is a seasonal condition that lasts several weeks or months at a time and directly relates to external factors that affect one’s mood. More commonly diagnosed in women than in men, an individual’s risk of SAD is higher if they live far from the equator and/or have a family history of depression. In many cases, September marks the annual starting point.
Carly Crawford, a registered psychotherapist in Burlington, Ont., explains why this time of year is hard for those with SAD. “September is a trigger, as it’s when our days start to shorten and the temperature changes,” she says. “Although research mainly focuses on the correlation between a lack of daylight and onset, I see that a combination of factors can impact how individuals are impacted by SAD: a loss of daylight, change in temperature, our psychological connection with going back to routine and the anticipation of a long winter.”
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When treating SAD, a psychiatrist or medical doctor may prescribe medication to elevate the patient’s mood, Crawford says. Another common tool is cognitive behavioural therapy — a structured, short-term form of psychotherapy that centres on the development of coping strategies and skills, and may be implemented as a primary treatment or performed in conjunction with medication. In many cases, she says, addressing the lack of sunlight is critical to alleviating symptoms.
“Those who are diagnosed with SAD are treated exactly the same way [as those with major depression] with one major difference: they are highly encouraged to invest in sun lamps to use throughout the day as light therapy,” Crawford says. “I have treated many individuals who have used a variety of different kinds — some that attach to their computers and others that light up their entire space. This has shown to be a key added element with treating SAD versus other types of depression.”
It’s important to note that sadness does not inherently equal depression, and feeling the September blues isn’t necessarily a sign of seasonal affective disorder. You can face a lingering sadness but not be truly depressed. In fact, this is often the case.
The main distinction between feeling down and suffering from depression is the severity and duration of symptoms, as well as the reason behind them. Sadness tends to stem from something specific: a job loss, a marriage breakup, the death of a loved one, or another upsetting experience or event. It’s normal (and even healthy) to feel sad when we are hurt, disappointed or overwhelmed. Depression, however, is a mental illness that creates an abnormal emotional state. When a person is depressed, they feel pervasive sadness along with other physical and emotional symptoms. This feeling clouds all areas of their life, even in the absence of a specific reason. A doctor or mental health professional can help identify the difference between sadness and depression and if needed, recommend treatment.
“Seasonal affective disorder, like depression, is a serious mental health condition,” Crawford says. “I find that SAD is a term that can be thrown around quite flippantly, much like OCD. This time of year is often overwhelming as people are perhaps impacted by things like the school year changing, the holidays, which are stressful for a lot of people, and ultimately, the change in routine that comes with going from long, hot summer days to cold, dark winter days. It’s important to recognize the difference so that the appropriate treatment and coping mechanisms are put into place.”
CLARIFICATION (Sept. 18, 2019): This story has been edited from a previous version to reflect that not all lamps help users produce Vitamin D.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health issue, visit the Canada public health site to find a resource in your region.
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