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Seasonal Depression

February 19, 2012
By KIM LOCCISANO - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

"I just really need a bright sunny day to enjoy, and I know I will feel so much better. These clouds are just depressing! I know people think that sounds ridiculous, but it is true."

It just might not be your imagination working overtime if depression and isolation are accurate ways to describe how you feel when there is not a hint of sunshine for an extended period of time-particularly in the winter when weather conditions can also make it difficult to get around your community safely.

Today's healthcare professionals know there is nothing imaginary or the least bit funny about a patient fighting their way through the challenges of Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.

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Some might call it “the wintertime blues,” but Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a real condition that requires treatment.

The disorder got its formal identity in 1984 as a result of the work of Norman Rosenthal and others at the National Institute of Mental Health.

Mental health professionals stand firm these days on the fact there are numerous benefits to direct exposure to bright daylight.

The diagnosis some might call simply "the wintertime blues" was once treated as laughable. Now individuals found to be troubled by this condition can count on being treated and their condition managed successfully.

Professionals locally and at such distinguished healthcare facilities as The Mayo Clinic agree there is a very real benefit to employing light therapy techniques. But it is important to note-not just any light source will make a difference in a patient's health.

"Light therapy is a way to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD) by exposure to artificial light. Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that occurs at a certain time each year, usually in the fall or winter," according to experts with The Mayo Clinic and Foundation. "During light therapy, you sit or work near a device called a light therapy box. The box gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. Light therapy is thought to affect brain chemicals linked to mood, easing SAD symptoms. Using a light therapy box may also help with other types of depression, sleep disorders and some other conditions. Light therapy is also known as bright light therapy or phototherapy."

Light therapy is not something that will benefit everyone, but by simply following basic guidelines for a period of time set for them with the help of a healthcare professional will allow them to get the best possible individual result, say experts.

Simply quitting the therapy when the weather begins to improve or your mood begins to brighten is not the way to go, according to Mayo experts who also caution that light therapy may not solely be enough treatment for some patients.

Physicians and therapists nationwide, who have in recent years been seeing an increasing number of patients suffering the challenges of living with Seasonal Affective Disorder, know "having the blues" can play serious havoc with the quality of a person's overall health, their mental well-being, and can even lead to suicide.

It is also important to realize the problem is not completely exclusive to winter or fall, as some patients experience the challenges of SAD even during the summer season.

Leigh Huggins of Tri-County Help Center in St. Clairsville explained the uniqueness of a SAD diagnosis as often being reached based on a person's overall mental and physical condition during consecutive fall and winter seasons as seen over a minimum of two years time.

"Seasonal Affective Disorder is a very real medical condition, and once properly diagnosed can often be very successfully treated," said Huggins, an experienced adult and adolescent therapist.

"Key to challenges seen seasonally by SAD patients are substantial changes in sleeping habits, eating habits and unexpected changes in a person's general demeanor and overall zest for life," said Huggins. "They will suddenly be craving foods high in carbohydrates. Their sleeping habits and patterns will change for seemingly no reason, other than the time of year, as patients with SAD will want to sleep a great deal more than they do at other times of the year. They can literally want to sleep all the time, putting the blame for that on a sort of heaviness, or weighed down feeling which overwhelms these patients during these times. They will routinely comment their arms and legs feel unusually heavy."

While there are several key factors for diagnosis of depression, particularly of major depressive disorder, there are substantial differences between them, one of the biggest being something as basic as time itself, she offered.

It has also been proven women are more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than are men.

A major depressive disorder diagnosis can be based on conditions seen consistently over a minimum of two or more week's time, said Huggins.

This is not the case when a diagnosis of SAD is made.

A minimum of two year's time is needed to document precise details of a person's illness over the course of the changing seasons to make a finding of SAD, say national experts.

Huggins believes this is very realistic.

Huggins explained it is common for patients living with SAD to begin light therapy treatment in the early fall, as this is the time of year when the days get shorter.

The therapeutic light sources are increasingly covered by insurances, making a discussion about this mental health diagnosis well worth having with your physician, she offered.

"Treatment can routinely continue until spring, as the days grow longer and the days generally get brighter, making time spent outdoors even more beneficial," she explained.

Treatment sessions often begin with as little as spending no more than 15 minutes in front of the therapeutic light source and can quickly lengthen up to about two hours time.

"There is no reason to let something like SAD, or depression in general, keep a person from enjoying life when treatment options can be connected to right here at home."



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