(Jan. 24, 2014) Starting around October, calls to the Worcester County Health Department’s Behavioral Health Unit jump, its Director Tracy Tilghman said.
Whether it’s the weather, post-holiday stress or unemployment, more people feel down this time of year and sometimes that seasonal slump turns into winter depression — “a real, diagnosable disorder,” Tilghman said.
There are two main mood-related disorders that roll in with the cold weather: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the “holiday blues,” said Debbie Dotson of Seaside Counseling & Wellness Center on Route 50.
Somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the U.S. population suffers from at least a mild form of SAD, though it is a difficult number to measure, she said.
“It starts around October or November and can go all the way to April,” her partner in practice Amy Ginnavan said. That’s because SAD is tied to shorter days and less sunlight during winter — things that can affect serotonin levels that impact mood, or melatonin, which plays a role in sleep.
“It’s anyone from adolescence up — it affects anyone and everyone,” Dotson said, though women are more likely to experience winter depression.
Symptoms of a mild case of SAD include oversleeping, increased sadness, decreased appetite, daytime tiredness and drops in socializing. People might also crave carbs, which can cause weight gain and shrunken self-esteem, Dotson said.
In more severe cases, lethargy, hopelessness or helplessness, a lack of interest in activities and social withdrawal characterize SAD and anyone with those symptoms should seek counseling, she said.
The holiday blues can strike before, during or after the winter holiday season, depending on the individual, Tilghman said. “It really depends on the person — how they experience it.”
While the company and hustle of Christmas can keep some people feeling chipper, the holidays can also make others feel lonely or cause stress, she said. Some are relieved when the season is over while others feel that Christmas was “getting them through,” Dotson said.
Despite seasonal slumps, suicide rates do not increase in the winter, Ginnavan said. Seaside Counseling does, however, see an increase in clients during the winter.
Aside from being female, those who live further north or have a family history of mental health disorders are more likely to experience winter depression, Tilghman said.
Winter in a resort town
Seasonal slumps can be amplified in a resort town, where the passing of summer also means fewer friends, activities and chances for income.
“A lot of Ocean City shuts down, and that detracts from things to do,” Dotson said.
Some year-round residents go on unemployment or see drops in income, adding stress to the pile, Ginnavan said.
“Its just another stressor,” Tilghman said. “That of course is going to impact your mood.”
Calls to the county Health Department jump in October, when employment starts to fall off and students return to school, she said. Those numbers plateau around January and February, then jump again when visitors flood into town in the spring.
Last year, her department had 1,001 new intakes from March to August — 165 more than it did between September 2013 and February 2013.
“Even if you compare to Salisbury or places in Delaware that aren’t really resort towns, it’s a whole different world. You can go to Salisbury and there’s stuff to do (in the winter),” Ginnavan said. “You don’t have all of that in Ocean City.”
How to help
So what’s a post-holiday resort town resident to do?
“Eat healthy,” Ginnavan said, “and make sure that you’re not just sitting and binge eating all day long.”
Getting outside in the sunlight and brightening indoor environments by opening the blinds and sitting closer to windows can also help. There is even light therapy to fight SAD, which Tilghman recommends discussing with a doctor.
Exercise is another way to battle winter blues and classes at local yoga studios can be especially good for mental health, she said. Group classes can help people socialize, something important especially in the winter months.
“Isolating definitely makes it worse,” Dotson said, recommending activities from indoor mini-golf and bowling to game nights with friends and seeing what Recreation and Parks activities and the Chamber of Commerce have to offer.
When it comes to connecting, the Internet can be a double-edged sword because it can be a positive distraction or give people a means to cut themselves off further, she said.
Staying productive in a low-work season is also important, “even if it’s just one thing per day,” Ginnavan said. “One of the things that leads to depression is letting things pile up.”
Those experiencing serious symptoms should seek help, usually starting with a primary care physician, she said. Seaside Counseling, the Worcester County Health Department and many other private offices all offer help and have sliding financial scales for those worried about paying for the visits.
“It can be as easy as just discussing it with a primary care physician and seeing if you need to pursue it further,” Ginnavan said.
Visit www.worcester.md.networkofcare.org/mh for a list of local mental health services and programs.