PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
The time of year has come once again where the sun sets early and the weather becomes colder. Airmen and space professionals tend to hide indoors and binge-watching habits take over. This year in particular with COVID-19 restrictions, Airmen find themselves tucked away and isolated with a mysterious danger lurking in the shadows.
Seasonal depression, or winter depression, is more accurately called Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s a type of depression that is brought on by a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and less exposure to sunlight in winter.
“SAD can be distressing and overwhelming and can interfere with daily function,” said Staff Sgt. Melanie Flores, 21st Operational Medical Readiness Squadron mental health clinic non-commissioned officer-in-charge. “Similar to plants, humans use sunlight to produce vitamin D, increasing our serotonin (happy hormone) levels. As the weather changes and it gets colder, we are less exposed to sunlight than normal which may ultimately lead to lower serotonin levels, affecting our mood and feelings of happiness.”
According to www.psychiatry.org, about five percent of adults in the U.S. experience SAD, and it can last up to 40 percent of the year.
Some things Airmen and space professionals can look out for include feeling tired or lethargic after a full night's rest, feeling down and/or depressed and not understanding why, weight gain or missing the gym a few days in a row because you’re feeling tired or unmotivated, Flores added.
Many of the common symptoms are similar to those of major depression such as feeling down and/or having a depressed mood, a lack of motivation and energy, loss of interest in hobbies, trouble falling/staying asleep or sleeping too much, difficulty concentrating, and changes in appetite. In more extreme cases, SAD may lead to thoughts about suicide and death. Knowing these signs and symptoms can help to identify if your or someone you are close with may be experiencing SAD.
But do not fear, there are ways to combat SAD. Flores suggests practicing good sleep hygiene – going to bed at the same time each night, setting an alarm for the same time every morning, keeping your room dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature and removing electronic devices from the bedroom. Another helpful tip is setting a daily routine and sticking with it. This routine may include time for exercise, a hobby, and spending time with friends and loved ones. Some treatments for SAD include light therapy, psychotherapy (talk therapy), antidepressants, and taking vitamin D supplements.
“I like comparing mental health to a broken leg,” Flores said. “Though going to the doctor to find out what’s wrong is scary and the treatment may hurt, it’s necessary so that your leg can heal and get stronger – this is the same when it comes to mental health. It may be scary, it’s vulnerable and requires some opening up; but once everything is out there and you’re getting help, it’s all worth it.”
Especially with Coronavirus Burnout and Pandemic Fatigue starting to affect the general population, it’s important to take care of your mental health.
“Although COVID-19 doesn’t cause Seasonal Affective Disorder,” Flores said. “The stress of social distancing guidelines, limited interpersonal interactions, worrying about your health and/or the health of loved ones and more can definitely add to and exacerbate symptoms of it.”
Flores’s top tips for improving your mental health while still maintaining social distancing guidelines and in addition to practicing sleep hygiene include not exceeding your normal caffeine intake, avoiding consuming alcohol and nicotine, exercising regularly, and staying in regular contact with friends and family. It may also help to take time for self-care and finding ways to get together while following social distancing guidelines in your area.
Whether you are military, civilian or a dependent there are many avenues for you to seek mental health care listed below.
Mental Health Clinic – available to active duty only
BHOP – available to all AD, retirees and Tricare enrolled dependents
Military OneSource – available to all AD, guard, reserve, retirees and their families
Off base therapists – available to Tricare enrolled dependents. No referral required to schedule with Tricare approved providers
MFLC – available to military members and their families
Chaplain – 100% confidential services for anyone on base
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – available to everyone. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Crisis Text Line – available to everyone. Text “Hello” to 741741
National Helpline – available to everyone. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357)