This winter has thus far been pleasantly mild for Minnesota–mild enough that some people have kept the radio waves busy pondering global climate change. However, even a moderate season can give you a touch of the winter blues, or as they’re often now known, Seasonal Affective Disorder (or it’s amusing little acronym, SAD). It’s estimated that about 10-20% of the general population have at least a mild version of SAD, and somewhat predictably, it seems that the percentage is higher as one goes north.
There are many causes for SAD. As the days are shorter, we have less exposure to sunlight, and the sunlight that we do get isn’t first thing in the morning. That lack can disrupt your normal sleep patterns, leading to fatigue. Thomas Wehr, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, believes that melatonin could be another culprit. Extra melatonin can make you sleepy, and Wehr found that suffers of SAD had abnormally high levels of melatonin during the winter.
Then there are the other contributing factors: many people engage in less physical activity in the winter, don’t eat as healthily as they do in the summer, and are less likely to venture out to socialize with family and friends. All those little changes can add up to a big problem; ultimately, SAD can cause anxiety, suicidal thoughts, depression, and poor concentration. SAD is bad enough in the general population, but it can have a larger impact on some members of the GLBT community who might not have the same family support system that the rest of the population enjoys.
David Hancox, Executive Director with Centers for Independent Living (CIL) explains, “If you’re already feeling isolated, and you add the additional isolation that’s brought on by the weather, I think that begins to compound the situation, and can result in some behaviors that are associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder or depression.”
Likewise, for those who have a disability or a mental health issue, winter can add an extra layer of stress. Debra Martin-Schloer, Clinical Director of Metro Counseling and Family Resources at Lutheran Social Service (LSS) states, “SAD is quite common, and for some, the symptoms grow worse as the winter progresses. And if you are managing clinical depression, this can sometimes exacerbate the experience.”
If you know or suspect that you are affected by SAD, there are things you can do to mitigate its symptoms. Medications like Paxil and Prozac can help, as well as increasing your exposure to light. Treatment can also be as easy as adjusting your physical activity level and changing your diet. Kimberia Sherva, Co-facilitator with the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), says, “It has been proven that when you exercise, it stimulates your seratonin. And that’s the chemical that some people have a lack of. ..and even a little exercise can boost that.” She adds, “Try to eat healthy. Green leafy vegetables have certain vitamins in them that help your brain chemistry. And believe it or not, salmon has vitamin E; Vitamin E has been known to help as well.” Sherva also recommends reaching out to your support system, and making time for activities you enjoy.
NAMI, LSS and CIL all offer a wide range of services to keep our community healthy throughout the year. CIL (mcil-mn.org) helps individuals living with disabilities gain independent living skills, and offers personal attendant services. CIL also manages the Disability Linkage Line (1-866-333-2466)– a hotline that connects callers to a wealth of information and resources throughout the state. Additionally, CIL hosts a support group tailored specifically to those in the GLBT community who have disabilities. “The GLBT support group was originally started because individuals with disabilities who were also GLBT were feeling like they were living with a bit of a double whammy, if you will,” Hancox states. “They were finding they were rejected by the GLBT community, and then rejected by the disability community–they face alienation from both groups. The group gives individuals with that commonality an opportunity and a place to come together…to talk amongst themselves about the challenges, and maybe find some resolution or find some camaraderie. To sit down and have a conversation with somebody who really gets it and understands.” Attending the support group is free; for more information, email the group’s facilitator at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to offering education, support, and advocacy for persons with mental illness, this past October, NAMI Minnesota (namihelps.org) started a facilitated support group specifically for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people and their allies who struggle with mental illness. Meeting once a week on Saturdays from 1:00-2:30 at Living Table United Church of Christ (formerly Spirit of the Lakes), the group offers support, advice and encouragement, and every now and then a little tough love. Co-facilitator Sherva states, “You know how they say it takes a village to raise a child? It’s kind of the same with mental illness, because honestly, the most successful people dealing with a mental illness are the people who have a strong support network.” She adds, “When you do it the right way, the person feels supported, feels acknowledged…and can focus on recovery.”
If you need more individual care or are considering medication, LSS (www.lssmn.org) might be a good place to start. LSS offers counseling and psychiatric help as well as therapy groups that address management of anxiety and depression. To begin the intake process, call 612-879-5320. “We consider the intake process an opportunity to listen and see if we can help,” concludes Martin-Schloer. With sixteen mental health professionals at multiple locations throughout the metro area, LSS also can provide counseling services to individuals in Alexandria, Brainerd, Fergus Falls, Mankato, Willmar, Detroit Lakes, and St. Cloud.
Staring down the specter of February, it’s nice to know that there is a wealth of resources out there for anyone who needs a little help getting through another winter. All things come to an end, and winter doesn’t last forever. But if you experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, there’s no reason you have to tough it out all on your own.