Winter Depression

Ellie Saunders, Writer

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Young adults in Southwest Washington have two strikes against them when it comes to mental health: the stress of being a teenager, and living in the Pacific Northwest— a winter depression hotspot.

“I do think that teens are more susceptible to winter depression than most other age groups,” counselor Jessica Lechlak says. What’s more, reduced sunlight is common in the area, which scientists know decreases levels of serotonin in in the brain, thus increasing likelihood of depression.

For those who doubt the legitimacy of winter depression, the Mayo Clinic and several other leading health institutions recognize it as a mental health disorder— six percent of the population is affected by it, according to Lechlak, a licensed marriage and family counselor and clinical director at Refresh Therapy in Vancouver.

Proper identification of winter depression is important.  Fortunately, treatment is available and achievable should you or someone you know be afflicted.

Ms. Lisa Farrell knows about winter depression first hand. The Seton communications coordinator suffered from it for about 10 years.

“I would wake up feeling hopeless and with no energy,” Ms. Farrell says. This feeling would persist from November to June every year— “I would explain SAD as being something that doesn’t go away after a week or two,” the coordinator explains. “It lasts much longer.”

Winter depression is but one of two subsets of Seasonal Affective Disorder, which also is referred to as SAD.  Winter is far more common than the summer classification. “Those who experience it will experience depression symptoms during the winter months that will improve when the spring and summer months come around,” says Lechlak.

Location is a key factor in winter depression. Studies from the Mayo Clinic show that those who reside closer to the equator are significantly less likely to be affected than those who live in cold, rainy climates. Naturally, the Pacific Northwest is a winter blues hotspot, being one of the rainiest areas in the United States.

Ms. Farrell has experienced this firsthand.  “If I went on a trip somewhere sunny during the winter, the depression disappeared, and I would feel great for about a week when I returned,” Farrell explains. “But then the symptoms would come back.”

While weather is the primary cause of winter depression, there are other contributing factors. College counselor Maureen McDaid-Fraizer believes that the stresses of student life can increase teenagers’ likelihood of being affected by winter depression. “Academics can be very stressful,” McDaid-Frazier says. “I would rank that as number one.”

Ms. McDaid-Fraizer isn’t alone in her conviction.

“I think that teenagers have a lot of outside stressors that already affect their day-to-day ability to function,” Lechlak says. These factors may include sports, schoolwork, or applying to colleges– along with a multitude of other inherent constituents of teen life.

What happens chemically when a person suffers from winter depression? Neuroscientists at the Mayo Clinic say it has to do with serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical that regulates mood, anxiety, and happiness, and a lack of it can lead to depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Reduced sunlight has been observed to induce a correlating decrease in serotonin levels, increasing the likelihood of depression.

Everyone has their down days, and identifying the symptoms of winter depression in oneself or others requires awareness. Lechlak advises people to look for typical signs of depression that begin in the winter months and end around the same time at the beginning of spring.

The therapist has observed that individuals afflicted by winter depression may experience a wide range of symptoms, including fatigue, an overall feeling of hopelessness, irritability, loss of motivation, or a decline in interest of previously enjoyed activities.

“The difference for me was in energy level, feeling hopeless and not enjoying things I used to always enjoy,” says Farrell.

If you notice these symptoms in yourself or somebody you know, don’t hesitate to contact a counselor, therapist, or doctor. “Any major changes in behaviors or emotions that someone is experiencing should be talked about,” Lechlak says.

If not addressed properly, Lechlak warns that these symptoms may begin to persist even after the winter season is over.