The arrival of winter in Northern countries is not a simple case. As days are getting shorter and the sunlight is decreasing at a very fast rate, to the point where the day lasts less than six hours in some areas, many people are experiencing what is called “the winter blues”. This weather condition heavily affects their everyday life and, of course, their mood. Sadness, a sense of fatigue, and lack of energy are some of the most common symptoms, reported by many Northern Europeans during the winter months. The “Winter Blues” are, to some extent, normalized and expected. However, this phenomenon can develop into something much more serious. An actual mental disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression, related to the change of seasons. People who are in a normal mental state throughout most of the months, develop depressive symptoms at the same time each year. “Anywhere between the end of October, to the end of December, right before Christmas, the weather in Finland is extremely depressive. Obviously, this situation affects most of us”, says Venni, a 28-year-old Finn from Tampere. “Those months are very cold, very dark, with a lot of rain too. The trees and plants lose their leaves. The surroundings are very gloomy. The sunlight is getting decreased all the time, so you don’t have the sun to wake you up. Also, snow is one of the key indicators. The lack of snow makes everything much darker, and much more depressive. The snow is our sun during the dark times”.
The most common symptoms include a severe feeling of sadness, excessive, unjustified tiredness, loss of interest in usual activities, withdrawal from social interaction, and feelings of hopelessness and guilt. Also, the disorder causes oversleeping, difficulty concentrating, carbohydrate cravings, overeating, and weight gain. In extreme cases, people suffering from SAD have thoughts of not wanting to live.
The main factors
The exact causes of SAD are quite complex and still under research. Most specialists concluded that the eliminated levels of sunlight reduce the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that heavily affects mood. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression. Also, melatonin, a sleep-related hormone is believed to play a role in the development of SAD. Melatonin is produced in the dark, therefore the lack of sunlight causes an overproduction of this hormone. Melatonin heavily affects the circadian rhythm, or “biological clock”.
“I don’t always think that my anxiety or depression might be connected to the seasonal change. However, I do realize that compared to the summer, there are some significant differences. During summer, I feel much more energetic and way happier, so I think there is a huge correlation between these times. Maybe the spring is a bit easier because there is more light coming up. I would say that the prime time in Finland begins at the end of May and ends at the end of August. I have a lot of friends who experience anxiety and depression during the darker months, even though we, Nordic people, are more used to it. Now, because of climate change, we don’t always have snow, which, as I said before, is our “sun” in the darkness”, says Venni.
Coping with seasonal depression
To avoid all the negative effects of seasonal depression, the experts have suggested many treatment options, with light therapy being the most common. During a session, the patient is sitting at a prescribed distance, commonly 30-60 cm in front of a box with his/her eyes open, but not staring at the light source, for their energy levels and alertness to be increased. In some cases, certain antidepressants are also prescribed. The experts also urge patients to work out and maintain a healthy lifestyle. “With coping, I choose to do a lot of sports and try to be as active as possible. A healthy diet makes a huge impact as well. I try to avoid alcohol as much as I can. I also invite friends over, to play some board games, watch a movie or just talk. Personally, I don’t take any medication. In Finland, psychologists and psychiatrists are very easy to prescribe you a pill, rather than see if the problem can be solved in another way. As a result, you can easily get addicted to these strong medications and have side effects. I think the medication helps at first, but the problem should be dealt with through therapy. A lot of my friends take pills to fight seasonal depression, but I don’t like the fact that they make you passive, and the problem is remaining.”
The role of the state and society
“In Finland, we have public health and private health: private health is very expensive, but you can get help immediately. The public one is definitely affordable, but it can take a very long time. I know many cases where people would have to wait for a year to get help. Right now, the state is really trying to improve the health system, by hiring more psychologists and therapists, but the stigma around mental health is remaining. Our society believes that mental health is not very important, in comparison to other problems, like alcohol abuse”, says Venni. “Recently, we had an incident, where a huge Finnish mental health company got hacked, and the information of the patients was spread. A lot of people lost their privacy and got blackmailed by the hackers, for their mental health conditions to be kept secret. After that, people really woke up to the fact that it’s not a problem if others know that you are struggling with a mental disorder. Now, there are a lot of advertisements, urging people to get help”, he adds.
“Undoubtedly, my generation is way more open and sensitized towards mental health and depression, compared to my parent’s generation, but many more changes should be done. People should start to talk more openly, face the problem, and actually try to solve it instead of hiding it. Mental health should be taken much more seriously.”