Dealing in the dark

In Features /

By Rachelle Younglai

It’s late October and the skies are brooding. The clouds are ominous shades of grey and leaves blow restlessly through city streets. On the congested sidewalks around Jorgenson Hall and on park benches and stoops around Toronto, people huddle together, pulling their jackets around them for warmth. The cold wind is blowing a yearly phenomenon into the city and across the country – people are bracing, physically and mentally, for the dark days of winter.

Cosy evenings and wooly sweaters make the prospect of a four month hibernation appealing – but the impending frost brings psychological disadvantages. For some, shorter days and cold weather bring apathy, laziness and feelings of depression. “The darkness is worse than the cold,” says Breanna Rae, a first-year hospitality and tourism student. “It affects my mood and makes me depressed.”

According to the Mood Disorders Program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Rae is definitely not alone – about two-thirds of Canadians say their moods change significantly with the seasons. In a nation plagued by a climate complex, four months of summer cannot thaw the psychological effects of long-term frostbite. But program director Dr. Anthony Levitt says winter blues are more than just a trend, they are a common condition known in medical circles as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.

SAD sufferers face recurrent yearly depression every winter which brings with it decreased libidos, low energy and changes in sleeping patterns. Because the SAD symptoms are brought about by unavoidable seasonal change, dealing with it is difficult. Many people ignore the symptoms, focussing on the inevitable return of sunshine and solace, but different cultures have adopted specific treatments for SAD ranging from pharmaceuticals to prayer.

Specialists at Sunnybrook treat SAD in much the same way they would treat diagnosed depression – with counseling, and in severe cases, with antidepressants. They also use non-traditional techniques like light therapy, which they say is instrumental in treating an ailment brought about by lack of exposure to the sun. Patients are regularly exposed to ultraviolet light which helps to regulate the body clock by providing an amount of light equivalent to standing outdoors on a clear spring day. The light that is registered through the eyes transfers impulses to the hypothalamus in the brain, which regulate the body clock function.

“Photography light can be 70 per cent effective,” says Rick Kennedy, of the Canadian Mental Health Association. But although it’s effective, it’s short lived, Kennedy says. “Even though light is a more natural approach, some people find medication easier.”

But while most people want to avoid season depression, some say it doesn’t require medication.

“Depression is not such a negative force in our culture,” says Wanda Whitebird, a native counsellor with Anishnawbe Health Centre in Toronto. “Our elders teach that depression can be good because at least you’re feeling something.”

Whitebird says that about 10 to 15 per cent of her clients are affected by the change of seasons and that the condition is not unusual among aboriginals.

“We didn’t name it (SAD), but we know it,” she says. Whitebird is part of the Micmac Nation’s Bear Clan, and says that they have a hard time during the winter because their spirit guide goes to sleep.

“We look at the natural law and try to understand it,” she says adding that we have no control over the natural laws of seasonal response. “On an emotional level we try to understand and accept that we have different emotions.”

Instead of ignoring these emotions, her clan compensates for dismal weather by wearing lighter coloured clothing and getting up earlier to increase their exposure to the day’s sunlight.

Anishnawbe Health Centre is a culture-based walk-in clinic that has a client base of about 8,500. It offers clients a choice between western practices and traditional ones. There are psychiatrists, traditional native counsellors and spiritual healers.

The manager of the health centre, Phyliss Williams says that by simply being able to talk with clients in their native language is sometimes all that needs to be done. Many people have a hard time describing their symptoms in a second language, and through misunderstandings they can be misdiagnosed.

“It brings you home,” Williams says. “Seeking the guidance of elders and healers is the most successful.”

Speaking the language plays a big part in the healing process for all cultures.

At Hong Fook, a mental health association that serves a mostly Asian clientele, being able to communicate with clients in their own language is key.

“We bring the gap between mainstream [Western] treatment and those who cannot speak English,” says Lucetta Lam, a social worker who works with Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking clients. Hong Fook also serves Toronto’s Cambodian, Vietnamese and Korean communities.

“We try to help people manage their own life by providing supportive counselling,” Lam says. Not only do workers need to speak the language, they also need to understand the culture idioms. Lam says that Chinese people who suffer from depression usually present it as a physical problem.

“They say it’s a headache or they can’t breathe instead of saying it’s depression,” Lam explains.

Misunderstanding the symptoms of SAD leads many people to suffer in silence or use the wrong tactics to cope with the ailment.

Dr. David Day, assistant professor or psychology at Ryerson, says it’s important to know when depression is linked to SAD and when it’s caused by something else. “If a person is aware of SAD, they know it will lift,” says Day.

However, Day says he does not notice his students becoming depressed at this time of the year, but does not notice their level of stress is high – a condition that can produce some of the same symptoms as depression.

One can lose a sense of perspective and begin to think in global terms, Day explains. “They think everything is bad and nothing is going to go right. When you do that you can’t help but feel overwhelmed.”

Some of the physical symptoms of stress include shortness of breath, anxiety and rapid heart beating. “If you can’t get out of bed and you have to go to classes, it’s stressful,” he says.

While not all winter blues are the same, there are various resources available to those suffering from SAD. Students can visit the Mood Disorder Association, which runs a self help group once a month and has a display of ultraviolet lights in its library for clients to use, or various mental health associations around the city.

“It’s trying to keep a balance by not trying to do too much or too little,” says Eric Jonasson, the manager for the Mood Disorder Association. Jonasson says that some clients prepare themselves by seeking light treatment before the depression sets in.

Bracing for seasonal changes that can affect your mood is key to dealing with SAD, say mental health workers. Individuals must find their own way to counteract reactions to the cold days of winter by choosing the mind set or counselling centre that best reflects their needs.

Karim Premji, a first-year Ryerson ITM student, notices that people seem less motivated as the days get darker and colder, but says he is not affected by seasonal change. Premji has ways to deal with the stress and depression – time management, good nutrition, exercise and religion. His personal mantra is “Despondency is a sin, a necessary part of faith.”

He says people must look inside for the means to face depression.

“It’s a spiritual thing that you hold within,” Premji says.

“The hope to always get through it.”

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