Shorter days in places of higher latitude are burdening many young people who already suffer with mental illness. Every year, the lack of sunlight is worsening their symptoms.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is triggered by a lack of exposure to sunlight. It makes fulfilling daily responsibilities feel like an uphill battle.
“If we had to do something after school and I came home and it was dark, it just ruined everything. Even if I had fun things to do, it felt ruined,” said Casey Jo White. “It’s not even a ‘being anxious’ thing, because I have anxiety and I know what that feels like. It really is just feeling absolutely drained of your passion and your energy.”
White has been living with SAD since childhood. The disorder runs in White’s family. Her mother and her brother have it.
“It’s one of those things my brother and I talk about. You know how people talk about sunsets being romantic, and for us… something about a sunset is super depressing,” said White.
White went to school at Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. While attending college, she developed what she dubs ‘the solitaire effect.’ She describes this circumstance as the key indicator that SAD is setting in.
“I don’t particularly like solitaire. It’s not my favourite game. I would have other video games on my computer that I could easily play that would be more fun. I had other things I could be doing that would be a lot more fun, but it was solitaire. I would play solitaire for hours, because it was something simple and it was all I had the energy to do.”
Between the time when daylight savings begins and ends, White takes Prozac to help ease SAD symptoms. White also takes Zoloft, which is an antidepressant, year-round to treat anxiety.
After receiving a diagnosis from a doctor, White has found that medication and therapy help ease the symptoms each winter.
Making depression worse
A lack of exposure to adequate sunlight causes serotonin levels in the body to dip.
Furthermore, SAD is more likely to have an impact on people who struggle with mental illness, such as ADHD, bi-polar disorder, an eating disorder or anxiety.
“It’s [depression] times 100, because, you know, between going to work, I don’t always get to see the sunlight, and there’s a point where you kind of start spiralling,” said Tess Rowing.
Rowing has two jobs. She works as a waitress and does remote work for a company commissioned by Google. She noticed that the seasons affected her mental health when she was a post-secondary student.
For Rowing, shorter days and less exposure to sunlight worsens her depression symptoms every year. One of these symptoms is suicidal thoughts.
“You just feel kind of hopeless and exhausted—to the point that I don’t want to do anything, and I don’t think that anything I’m going to do is going to make things better. So, I might as well die and get it over with,” said Rowing.
Chaotic circadian rhythm
“It kind of does feel like hibernating, like you do enter this low-key hibernation mode,” said Isobela Byerly-Chapman, an administrative assistant at MIT CISR (MIT Center for Information System Research).
Indeed, the human body naturally has low energy when experiencing prolonged periods of darkness. Research shows that people who have SAD often have higher levels of melatonin, which is the sleep hormone that regulates the body’s sleep cycle.
“I think it’s really important to look at yourself and say you feel like crap right now. That’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling like crap,” said Rowing.
“Depression isn’t something you can just medicate away, but what you can do is learn to manage it. That was a hard thing for me to learn, but at the same time, it’s been the most helpful thing for me to learn. And in that sense, it will get better,” said Rowing.
According Byerly-Chapman, setting little goals throughout the day can help mediate symptoms, such as exercise, walking outside, or planning dinner with friends.
For Rowing, these daily goals help alleviate suicidal thoughts.
“What can I do right now to not want to die? It can just be watching a movie, doing something that you know will make you feel better,” said Rowing.
Having open communication with loved ones also helps.
“The people who are close to you, who love you, they’re going to notice those things. They might not say anything because they might think that you can handle it, but if you ask them, ‘Hey, do you notice something different?’ It really helps to get that outside perspective.”