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Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Posted at 9:31 PM, Mar 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-06 23:31:08-05

When the days get shorter, the sky gets darker, and the weather gets colder, a mysterious yet widespread form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder rears its ugly head.

In short, S.A.D. is essentially a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. Most commonly, it comes in the winter and goes when the sun comes out for longer periods of time and the temperature rises.

Identifying Seasonal Affective Disorder can be tricky. Dr. Stephanie Bercusa, a clinical psychologist with Benefis Health System in Great Falls, says that it’s just like other forms of depression, except that it only comes around at the same time each year.

“We look for the symptoms that we look for in any other mood disorder,” Dr. Bercusa said. “For depression, we look for people with depressed mood, lack of interest, little enjoyment in doing things, poor sleep, appetite disturbance, difficulties concentrating, possibly even suicidal thoughts. If that cluster of symptoms comes at a certain time each year over and over again, then it meets the criteria for a major depressive disorder with that seasonal pattern.”

While a lot of educated guesses exist, Dr. Bercusa says that no one has been able to identify exactly why this disorder exists. It’s most common in the winter and among women, and it makes sense when you consider that there are many things that people typically enjoy doing that can’t be done in the darkness and cold of the winter, especially in Montana. That being said, there is still a lack of a scientific explanation for the phenomenon.

“There’s lots of educated guesses out there, but we don’t know for sure why it happens,” Dr. Bercusa explained. “I think the most important thing is if it happens, to get help, because it doesn’t have to be something that happens every year, and there’s no hope. This is something that you can get treatment for and you can prevent it and then you don’t have to be feeling miserable every winter.”

There are also a number of things that can be done to alleviate the symptoms of seasonal depression before it becomes a “full blown mood disorder.” Dr. Bercusa recommends getting outside and seeing the sun, talking to your doctor about supplements or treatments that might be right for you, and spending time with friends and family, people that generally make you happier.

There are also different variations of S.A.D. Dr. Bercusa said that there is a small percentage of people who experience mental highs in the spring or summer every year, followed by lows in the winter. She says that it’s possible that is a case of bipolar disorder.

Most importantly, if you think you or someone you know might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder or any form of depression, the first step to take is to talk to someone you trust. After that, you can decide if seeking help from a medical professional like a psychologist is the right path for you. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts at any time of the year, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Click here to learn more about S.A.D. at the National Institute of Mental Health .