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May 23, 2024

Rates of Seasonal Affective Disorder Rising Sharply This Winter

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Jan 15, 2024

A mental health crisis is unfolding this winter as rates of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) skyrocket across northern regions. Characterized by low mood, lethargy, oversleeping and weight gain during darker months, experts warn this year’s SAD surge could overwhelm already strained healthcare systems.

Perfect Storm of Factors Driving SAD Explosion

According to psychiatrist Dr. Rebecca Blue of Northern Michigan Health, “a perfect storm of factors has triggered alarming SAD rates this season.” Shorter daylight hours coupled with record low temperatures, back-to-back snowstorms and social restrictions have left many struggling.

“Humans evolved needing sun exposure for mood regulation via the brain chemical serotonin. Take away light and problems emerge,” she said.

Up to 10% of wider Michigan’s population battles SAD annually. However, Blue notes that referrals to her clinic this winter have “tripled compared to last January.”

Key 2024 Triggers

Factor Effect on SAD

|Very cold, overcast weather | Reduced daylength; less sunlight penetration indoors
|Early seasonal snowfall | Less sunlight; people stay indoors more
|Pandemic exhaustion/isolation | Less socializing and physical activity
|Omicron surge | New restrictions; infection risk keeps people home

A statewide mental health hotline also reports a substantial seasonal spike in calls for low mood, especially amongst elderly and vulnerable groups.

“Many anticipated a happier winter after lockdowns eased last year. But the weather and Omicron wave dashed those hopes,” said Michigan counsellor, Patrick Witte. “Instead they feel trapped indoors again, alone with dim, depressing days.”

Women, Youth and Elderly Most Affected

Research confirms women are diagnosed with SAD at almost five times the rate of men. Hormonal changes may contribute to this gender divide.

However, Dr Blue emphasizes that adolescent mental health is deteriorating at alarming speed. School counsellors across northern school districts have observed a dramatic deterioration as winter drags on.

“Teens already deal with challenging mental, physical and social transitions,” Blue explained. “Few get enough vitamin D and light at the best of times. Take away their coping mechanisms and SAD can gain hold quickly.”

Amongst the elderly, SAD threatens physical health not just quality of life. Studies show almost 75% of nursing home residents suffer vitamin D deficiencies during winter. This frequently manifests in SAD symptoms like withdrawal and exhaustion.

Isolated seniors with pre-existing conditions are most vulnerable. Reports show generalized anxiety, PTSD and obsessive compulsive disorder can worsen seasonally too.

“We have patients struggling with conditions like hoarding and contamination fears that spike beyond control this time of year” said Duke University anxiety specialist, Dr Paula Reeves.

Gloomy Outlook for Future Winters

Specialists predict this dire situation will repeat in coming years as northern winters worsen. Climate change models show winter temperatures dropping further as weaker Gulf streams transport less heat northward long-term.

Simultaneously, later winter sunrises and earlier sunsets will squeeze daylight hours year on year. Scientists estimate northern regions already lose around 5 hours of daylight from December to February compared to summer peaks.

This will only accelerate. By 2070, parts of northern Europe and America may experience almost no sun for 2 months annually.

“The public health impact of these changes will be devastating,” cautioned Dr Blue. “We urgently need proactive messaging and interventions before entire populations succumb to darkness.”

Preventative Focus Only Hope

With SAD diagnosis and therapy waitlists blowing out, medical experts argue prevention may be the only realistic approach moving forward.

“Blanket screening isn’t feasible with the numbers we’re facing. We need to equip people to self-identify risks early before acute symptoms appear,” advised psychology professor Mary Wilson.

She highlights simple weekly mood ratings and depression/anxiety scores that patients can monitor themselves. Early changes would prompt self-care before clinical help is required.

Public health advice also focuses on cold-weather coping strategies like light therapy lamps, vitamin D supplements, maintaining social contact and minimizing hibernating behaviors.

Key Recommendations to Combat SAD This Winter

Tactic Method

|Maximize natural light| Sit near windows; walk/exercise outdoors often
|Try light therapy| Use specialized SAD lamps mimicking sunlight
|Take Vitamin D3 | 1000-5000 IU per day depending on age/condition
|Keep active| Exercise releases endorphins; helps regulate sleep/appetite
|Eat nutrient-rich foods| Salmon, nuts, oranges, eggs lift mood naturally
|Stay social| Meet friends/family regularly; join winter sport teams
|Seek help early| Don’t delay if mood declines persistently

Small habit changes can prevent mild winter blues deteriorating into clinical disorders. But medical supervision is still essential for existing and severe episodes.

Warning Signs SAD Requires Urgent Care

  • Suicidal thinking or plans
  • Extreme lethargy, withdrawing from life
  • Rapid weight loss or gain
  • Sleeping excessively without restedness
  • Anxiety, agitation or bursts of mania
  • Hallucinations, delusional thoughts
  • Alcohol/drug abuse, self-harm gestures
  • Previously effective treatment suddenly failing

If you or someone you know exhibits these behaviors, seek help immediately via helplines, hospitals, crisis lines and counselling services. Ignoring red flags can be fatal.

Hope Still Shines Behind Dark Clouds

Despite uniquely challenging conditions this winter, clinicians emphasize people are resilient when equipped with support. Light hides behind even the darkest clouds.

“Boosting community morale and collective coping is key now,” said Wilson. “Getting through this will forge bonds and wisdom benefiting generations to come.”

Those battling should remember: You are stronger than this storm – and spring always returns. Help others where you can, but don’t neglect self-care. Brighter days lie ahead.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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