Waiting out the winter blues

Less than three per cent of Canadians are diagnosed with SAD - but up to 15 per cent are affected (Photo: Alex Cooke)



By Alex Cooke

The first time Michelle Doucette knew that something was wrong, she was working as a cashier over her Christmas break in Grade 12.

“I just got an overwhelming, ‘I don’t want to be alive anymore’ feeling, and it was scary,” she says.

“It was like, ‘Oh my god, why am I feeling this way, it sucks.’ And I went home and I cried all night over feeling that way.”

It would be the first time she felt that way, but not the last.

“I know people say that depression isn’t a feeling, like you can’t feel depressed, but I think that you can. I think depression is a feeling, it’s like a really, really heavy, ‘everything’s meaningless’ feeling.”

Doucette, now 22, is a Mount Saint Vincent University graduate now taking a bachelor of education degree at Saint Anne’s University in Halifax. She realized she had Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, in 2013.

SAD is a mood disorder that causes depressive symptoms during certain seasons, and is considered a branch of major depressive disorder. According to the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, up to 15 per cent of Canadians will be affected at some point by SAD, but only two to three per cent of Canadians are diagnosed.

Symptoms include depressive thoughts and tiredness, and it can be triggered by of lack of sunlight and over-production of melatonin.

“I was fine in September, still happy in October, but maybe a little bit less happy,” says Doucette.

“And then in November, it was just full-blown, ‘I can’t get out of my bed, I can’t eat.’ I cried at school, because it just feels like my life is over, everything’s over, everything’s worthless.”

“In the summer I’m so happy.”

Doucette says that she’s experienced it for the past two years.

But this year, after a location change and a new living situation, she’s been doing well.

Jim Malone has volunteered for around 10 years with the Upstairs Kitchen Club, a drop-in peer support group for mental health issues. It mainly works with people who have anxiety and depression, but helps some people with SAD around this time of year.

Malone started facilitating the meetings after his own run-ins with mental illness.

“When I had my mental crash with clinical depression, there was no such thing as peer support groups. All I had were my doctor’s visits once every two to three weeks,” he says.

“People with light to moderate depression don’t seem to get much in the way of help. You have to be pretty depressed to get help.”

Malone says that some of the people in his peer support group reported having improved symptoms after using therapy lights, which is a common treatment for SAD. They’re bright lamps that are supposed to be used for 20 to 30 minutes a day to regulate the body’s rhythm.

Peter Walker demonstrates a daylight therapy lamp (Photo: Alex Cooke)
Peter Walker demonstrates a daylight therapy lamp (Photo: Alex Cooke)

“The brightness of the light is what causes sensors in the back and bottom of the retina to pick up the brightness,” says Peter Walker, product manager for light therapy products at Carex Health Brands, which is based in Burnside.

The lamps cause serotonin, a neurotransmitter that controls pain perception, sleep cycle, and mood, to kick in by sending signals to the eye’s pineal gland.

Carex sells daylight therapy lamps to retailers such as Lawtons and Shoppers Drug Mart, as well as providing them to researchers.

“In the winter, when you have to get up at 8:30, or 7:30, or 6:30, it’s dark so you don’t have that light signal. That’s why you see that sort of change in behavior and mood as the season progresses into the winter,” says Walker.

Walker says that sales increase every year around mid-August, when retailers are making the product available since some people start to see symptoms as early as September.

“You’ll start to see sales increase in mid-August, so people start to get products in there, ready to have an available, because people start to see symptoms as early as September, because the days start to shorten.”

Different treatments work for different people. For Doucette, waking up earlier, taking walks during the day and staying warm has been a big help.

But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel – now that the days are getting longer, it will be easier to stay happy.