Every year, millions celebrate World Mental Health Day on the 10th of October. The stories shared on this day can constitute both a solemn reminder of how prevalent mental illness is in our society and a celebration of recovery, progress and lives reclaimed.
However, the beginning of October is also the time of year when things start getting undeniably autumnal. Instagram fills up with photos of falling leaves, pumpkin-spiced-everything is back on the menu and suddenly the beer garden is no longer as appealing as it was a month ago.
Yet, for many people, this time of year brings a sense of dread. As the nights draw in and temperatures drop, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can creep in.
For people struggling with this disorder, autumn can seem like the start of a daunting decent into winter, bringing depression, fatigue and isolation. Add a pre-existing mental health problem, and this time of year can feel like the beginning of a long, dark tunnel.
What is SAD?
The NHS defines SAD as a type of depression associated with seasonal changes.
It’s also often known as ‘winter depression’, as symptoms are often most severe in the winter. However, it’s common for mood changes to start in the autumn, with the sufferer’s state of mind seeming to decline with the weather.
Determining exactly how common SAD is can be difficult, as many people find that their health and general sense of happiness is lower in the winter than in the summer. However, the Royal College of Psychiatrists estimates that around 3 in every 100 people in the UK experience significant winter depression. This number may seem small, but it equates to over 2 million people nationwide.
The onset of colder weather has also been found to exacerbate symptoms in people who already suffer from mental health disorders. In fact, a 2013 analysis of Google searches suggested that several other mental illnesses, including bipolar, schizophrenia and eating disorders, become more prevalent in the winter months.
According to major UK mental health charity Mind, factors such as lack of light or high melatonin levels (which cause feelings of sleepiness) may cause mood levels to drop as the weather changes. However, the exact cause of SAD is still uncertain; some people even find that their mood drops in the summer months and returns to normal in the winter.
What’s the difference between SAD and winter blues?
Experiencing ‘winter blues’ is very common, particularly in geographic areas where the seasons make a big difference to weather, light and lifestyle. After all, it’s easy to feel a bit down when you look out the window and see nothing but grey for the third day in a row.
For those who commute to work or school, it’s also common to wake up in the dark and get home at dusk. The ensuing lack of daylight can be a drain on energy levels, leading to sluggishness and a lack of motivation to participate in mood-boosting activities, like exercise or socialising.
However, although the two are often used interchangeably, winter blues and SAD are not the same thing.
Clinically speaking, SAD is a sub-type of major depressive disorder. Meanwhile, feelings associated with winter blues are sometimes categorised as ‘subsyndromal’ SAD. This means that the individual does have some symptoms of SAD, but has not developed the disorder itself.
So, just as most people experience stress and periods of low mood without developing depression, most people who experience winter blues do not have SAD.
The difference generally comes down to functionality. People struggling with SAD experience mood disturbances, fatigue and loss of interest in activities that they used to enjoy to such an extent that they struggle to get through daily life. This can cause them to withdraw from social activities, lose motivation at work and sleep excessively.
However, it’s important that those suffering from winter blues do not simply dismiss their lowered mood just because it does not meet a diagnostic criteria. The changing seasons can affect physical and mental health, and winter blues could easily develop into a depressive episode if left unaddressed.
Look for the signs
No one feels happy or content all the time. Sometimes our lower moods may coincide with the changing seasons, especially if the arrival of autumn also means going back to school/work, or the start of the stressful run-up to Christmas.
However, if you can relate to the following, it might be time to talk to a professional about SAD.
- Experiencing a low mood, or constant sense of sadness that you just can’t shake
- Feeling that you are just ‘going through the motions’ rather than really engaging with life, even with activities that you used to enjoy
- Feeling constantly tired and lethargic, so that just going to work/school, running basic errands or sticking to social plans seems overwhelming
- Being overly critical of yourself, as if any small mistake makes you a failure, or is a sign of a huge flaw in your character
- Feeling out of control of your emotions, becoming tearful or irritable at seemingly small things.
In a friend, family member or work colleague, signs of SAD include:
- Withdrawal from social activities, such as flaking on plans, not wanting to leave the house, or talking less in a social group
- Seeming disengaged from their interests, talking less about hobbies or weekend plans, or simply acting out of character
- Decline in work or school performance, or dropping things that used to be important to them
- Seeming unable to keep up with the demands of daily life, such as having a constantly messy home, unclean clothes or an empty fridge
Of course, its important to remember that some people suffering from SAD (or other types of depression) go to great lengths to hide their feelings, especially in work settings or other areas of their life where they’re expected to take responsibility.
It’s also true that SAD can vary a lot from person to person. Some may be unable to hide their condition, whereas others may seem to be functioning as normal. Both need and deserve compassion and support.
Is SAD inevitable?
Although a bit of a cliché, it is true that we can’t control the seasons. For people struggling with SAD, that fact can fill October with dread, turning what seems like a crisp autumn breeze to everyone else into a chill that goes right into the bones and won’t shift.
Yet this doesn’t have to be the case. By spreading awareness of SAD, those suffering from it and the people around them can more easily recognise it and get the help they need. There is a plethora of treatment options for SAD, including those used for other types of depression, such as medication and therapy. If there’s any concern, making a GP appointment is usually a good first step.
However, simply having support can sometimes make the biggest difference. So as the nights draw in, remember to check on your friends, reach out to your co-workers, and look after yourself.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health problem, contact your GP, or visit mind.org.uk for more information. If you are in immediate distress or crisis, call 111 or visit your local A&E department. Alternatively, call Samaritans on 116 123.