One recent afternoon, Kelly Rohan, a professor at the University of Vermont, looked out her office window and spotted a tree half full of brilliant orange-colored leaves. To Rohan, the tree was lovely, but she knew some people might see it differently — as a harbinger of “gloom and doom.”
Rohan, a psychologist, treats and studies people with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a form of depression that returns year after year at the same time. The most common type peaks in winter, but it often starts in the fall as days get noticeably darker and shorter. People who are full of energy and high spirits during the summer start to feel sleepy and sluggish. Many crave sweets and starches. They gain weight. Some become deeply sad and withdrawn and don’t recover until spring.
But right now — before the symptoms of SAD and milder forms of “winter blues” reach their peak — is the best time for susceptible people to take steps to head off a more serious slump, experts say.
“As the days get shorter, and all you want to do is to pull the covers over your head, don’t,” says Norman Rosenthal, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. He speaks from experience: Rosenthal suffers from winter blues himself.
If you or someone you care about is considering suicide, call the free 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-TALK (8255), or text the word “home” to the Crisis Text Line, at 741741, in order to speak with someone who can offer confidential support and resources. Find more information at the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a helpline (aka the Treatment Referral Routing Service), too, that offers information on support groups, treatment options and other assistance: 800-662-HELP (4357).
Staying engaged in the world, even when it means putting on snow boots, can help ward off winter sadness, Rosenthal, Rohan and other experts agree. Treatment also can include medication, talk therapy and the very thing in decline right now — bright light.
Left untreated, SAD can be as serious as any other form of depression, Rosenthal says: “People can feel suicidal, people can lose jobs, and they can lose relationships.”