Is It More Than Winter Blues?

Leonardo Batista, MD., DDS

The winter blues. Those post-holiday, dark days of winter that can bring you down may – in some cases – be a form of mood disorder called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD is a recurrent episode of mood problems such as depression or mania that occur seasonally, typically during the same time each year. The symptoms can vary from the more typical signs of depression. For example, instead of decreased appetite, someone suffering from SAD may see an appetite increase.

Other symptoms include:

  • Sadness
  • Irritability
  • Body aches
  • Decreased concentration
  • Low energy
  • Poor sleep

Unnecessary suffering

While people with SAD may find symptoms wane by spring or summer, it is a serious condition that should not be ignored. Generally people facing mental health problems unnecessarily suffer.

In general, only about 25 percent of adolescents and 35 percent of adults seek mental health help when needed  That is a real problem, considering the best outcomes tend to be achieved when treatment is started sooner rather than later.

In recent decades, Americans have become more likely to seek out help from mental health professionals. However, there are cultural barriers that exist. While Americans seem to seek out mental health assistance at the recommendation of family and friends, members of the Portuguese and Latino communities are less likely to do so unless a medical professional refers them.

The Rhode Island Hospital Portuguese and Latino Mental Health programs were formed to address cultural barriers by providing services that are both language and cultural-competent, and to work closely with primary care providers.

Stigma can also be a barrier that cuts across all ethnicities and cultures. While SAD is a serious condition that can and should be treated, people often recover by the spring and summer. The problem, though, is that patients may go through unnecessary suffering and serious complications, depending on the severity of the condition.

Treatment for SAD

We see patients who come to us with mild symptoms -- sadness, decreased concentration, lower energy and weight gain. However, people suffering from a more severe illness may experience life-threatening complications such as psychotic features and suicidal thoughts. Patients with SAD can be helped with psychotherapy, bright light therapy, antidepressant medications, or a combination of those treatments.

Because SAD symptoms can be improved with sunshine, some people may feel better or even have complete remission of symptoms if they travel to warmer and brighter places during the winter.

Sometimes we can all use a little sunshine in our lives.

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