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SAD much more than just the winter blahs

Dr. David Elkin

Dr. David Elkin

It might be difficult to find anyone who likes the cold — often dreary — weather of winter. Most people bear it as part of the year’s seasons and look ahead to the more cheerful weather of spring and summer. But then, there are individuals for whom winter’s lack of sunshine is more than a mild feeling of displeasure. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a psychological disorder that has emotional and psychological challenges. The lack, or shorter hours, of sunshine is the culprit.

The number of Mississippians affected by SAD may not be as high as it is in colder, more Northern states, but it’s still a real thing for some. Sally West, a psychological therapist in Tupelo, and David Elkin, Ph. D. and psychologist at the University Medical Center in Jackson, agree that SAD does rear its head in the cold, rainy days of Mississippi winters.

“We do have sporadic cases — mostly in the winter but it can also affect people in spring and summer,” West said. “We primarily see cases of winter blues, or SAD, which has a lot of the same symptoms of depression. Depression goes into remission in the summer, but when we see a pattern in the winter, and it’s non-environmental, it’s the mood disorder SAD.”

Elkin, executive director of UMC’s Center for the Advancement of Youth, agrees that it’s the pattern each winter that must be recognized to identify SAD. “The symptoms have to be significant and impairing for the past two years and must get worse during the winter and get better after that season,” he said. “That’s a pattern for SAD, not for depression and bi-polar disorder.”

Both professionals point out the connection of SAD with times of the year with less sunshine; thus residents of Alaska are seven times more likely to have this disorder than residents of Florida. “The rate of SAD varies and is higher in Scandinavian countries where there are a lot of dark winter days,” Elkin said. “However, there’s a question about genetics or environment. Iceland, which has a very cold winter, has very little SAD. Maybe that’s due to their isolation, genetics and a diet high in fish.”

West, who ass worked at North Mississippi Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Center for 18 years, points out that light therapy to mimic the sun, along with counseling, is recommended for individuals suffering from SAD. “Exercise and sports can help, and sometimes medication is needed. SAD is a chemical imbalance in the brain,” she said. “We produce less serotonin when there’s less sunshine and that causes a change in the brain. There can be a real serious mood change in the winter when we miss sunlight.”

The general criteria of SAD are signs of depression, losing interest, feeling empty and hopeless, having trouble concentrating and craving carbohydrates. Alcohol can make it worse. “It can affect anyone. A person doesn’t have to meet all the criteria, but has a serious mood change in winter,” West said. “In its most severe mode, a person may be suicidal. That’s why he or she should get help.”

Elkin advises seeing a competent mental health professional; somebody who knows what they’re doing. “People who have SAD can’t just snap out of it; they need help. Those who are bi-polar or prone to depression are more susceptible to SAD,” he said. “It’s a connection with your eyes and part of your brain and the production of melatonin. That’s why we want to sleep more when it’s darker.

“Light has an affect on us. That sounds like voodoo, but it isn’t. You rarely see SAD in countries close to the Equator.”

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