Depression grips everyone differently. To Trista Kempa, it means lying in bed and wishing she never woke up.

"It’s not that I wish I was dead," the 30-year-old New Yorker clarifies. "I just feel like I’m missing any feeling at all."

When Kempa was a college student living in Michigan, a doctor told her she she may have seasonal affective disorder — a form of depression, fittingly dubbed "SAD," that typically strikes when the days grow shorter in fall and winter. For patients, a persistent decrease in sunlight exposure may cause mood swings, energy loss, increased anxiety, and more.

It's the winter blues on steroids.



GIF by Emma Darvick.


To this day, however, Kempa's not even entirely sure she has SAD — or ever legitimately had it. And she's not alone. For many patients, and even for the doctors treating them, it's no easy task to identify seasonal depression with complete certainty. SAD, like most mental illnesses, can be a labyrinth to navigate — but you and your mental health are worth it.

Here are three things you should keep in mind when it comes to staying on top of your mental health during winter:

1. Many of us haven't warmed up to the idea that less sunlight can mess with our mental health. But we should.

Research has found seasonal depression is certainly real for millions of people, according to Norman Rosenthal, who first described SAD in a 1984 medical journal. Yet, "get some sunlight" fails to make it on most of our to-do lists.

"The mind naturally gravitates to psychological explanations for why one is feeling bad," he explains. It’s not intuitive to link a lack of sun exposure to our deteriorating mood. So we don't.

We tend to solely blame outside stressors — like breakups or career changes — and not even consider that short, dark days could be doing us harm too. Compounded with the general stigma that often accompanies any mental illness, many people are hesitant to acknowledge SAD's legitimacy.

"I was afraid of being weird, of seeing a therapist, of having an issue," Kempa says after having been told she may have SAD. "The stigma was very real for me."

2. Sorting out your own winter blues may not be so black and white. And that's OK.

Say it's mid-January. You've been feeling lethargic for weeks on end. You're craving sweets and starches, and your sleeping habits are out of whack. You undoubtedly have SAD, and you're stuck with it for life. Right?

“Oftentimes, it’s not that simple," says Rosenthal.

A spectrum exists when it comes to extreme SAD and mild winter depression, and patients may find themselves at various points on that scale depending on the year. While the American Academy of Family Physicians estimates about 4-6% of the population has SAD and another 10-20% has more subtle symptoms associated with the winter blues, Rosenthal says external stress and geography (distance from the equator affects the length of daylight) play roles in if and how severe you experience SAD.

One winter, for example, someone may be living in sunny San Diego and have low stress in their private and professional lives. The next winter, they could be living in upstate New York, overwhelmed by work deadlines and personal hardships. The difference may well manifest in a person's mental health, says Rosenthal: "You can have the winter blues one year and then full blown SAD the next."

What's more, if a person lives with other mental health hurdles that aren't necessarily tied to the seasons, it can be even more difficult to sort through how they're feeling and why. Physicians may also find it difficult to confidently diagnose a person with SAD, seeing as many of the symptoms are similar to those associated with other forms of mental illness, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"I still don't really know [if] I ever had [SAD]," Kempa says. "When you’re diagnosed with depression, or anxiety, or SAD, or anything that is trying to pinpoint what’s going on with your brain, it’s just complicated. It’s hard to know exactly what it is."

It's important to be aware of all the factors that could be contributing to your winter woes — including the amount of sunlight you're getting.

3. The good news is, there are many things you can do to curb the worst effects of Old Man Winter.

“Whatever your degree to which you are affected, there are lots of things you can do about it," Rosenthal says. "You don’t have to suffer.”

Let start with the most obvious: Get outside during the day, if and when you can! When winter daylight is short, many leave for the office in darkness and commute home after the sun sets. The struggle is definitely real. But even a short, brisk walk outside on a lunch break can make a difference.

You could also create a "light room." Clean the window panes, open the blinds, trim the outside shrubbery, and make sure you have (at least) one space in your home that gets maximum sunlight. Shift as many daily activities — like reading, Netflix-ing, or hosting friends — to that room as you can, so you can take full advantage of the rays.

And if the real sun's just not cutting it at home, consider buying a sun lamp. According to the Cleveland Clinic, they're a safe way to help your body regulate melatonin and serotonin — hormones that aid in sleeping and stabilizing mood.  

It never hurts to be mindful of diet and exercise. Staying active and eating proteins and vegetables — and (sadly) avoiding sweets and carbs — can give you more energy throughout the day.

Of course, reaching out for help is always a great option too.

"Understanding mental health is really complicated," Kempa says, noting that because of supportive family and friends — and being more cognizant of what she's feeling — she's been in a great place for quite some time. "It’s not diabetes. It’s not a broken bone. You can’t just fix it. There’s no one-size-fits all drug or path to healing and wellness. I think this is what makes it all so daunting. And when you’re in it, it’s hard to put in the effort."

Sometimes we can't — or don't want to — do it all alone. And that's perfectly OK.

If you need help now, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255. Read more about seasonal affective disorder at the Mayo Clinic.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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