Mental Health Experts Discuss Seasonal Affective Disorder’s Links to COVID-19 Pandemic

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By: Ahmad Graves-El, SNJ Today

Photo: Jon Bradley | Follow South Jersey

SOUTH JERSEY — As the weather begins to shift from the heat of summer to the chill of autumn and the cold of winter, so do the moods of many Americans. 

The seasonal change triggers a mental state known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), in many individuals. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.” NIMH also states that SAD does occur in the summer, but at a lesser rate when compared to winter. 

Several signs that people may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder include, but are not limited to, isolating themselves from others, difficulty concentrating, feelings of hopelessness, and constant thoughts of death or suicide. For people who suffer with the effects caused by this mental health disorder, the stresses brought on by the global pandemic may exponentially multiply, which raises a red flag to local health officials. 

“When the pandemic started, it turned everyone’s life upside down,” Brandy Lee Brown, MSW, LCSW, LCADC, and outpatient behavioral health therapist with Inspira Health, said. “People with depressive disorders need structures and routine to decrease symptoms, and due to the pandemic, many structures and routines have been turned upside down.”

Brown, who also runs a private practice in Gloucester County, says social connectivity is essential for those who have challenges managing feelings of depression. However, social distancing mandates set in place by local, state, and federal governments, along with the change in seasons, may influence SAD sufferers into making unhealthy life choices.

“Since one of the best treatments for seasonal affective disorder is to remain socially connected, the pandemic poses a new hurdle for these folks to jump over,” Brown, who was led to the field of behavioral health after driving a school bus for homeless/displaced youth, said. “In the absence of outdoor activities, many people also won’t have the social opportunities provided by going to work, travelling (without major restrictions) or visiting family and friends. 

“When people are limited and feel isolated, they may turn to food, drugs, or alcohol to cope.”

According to psychiatry.org, “About five percent of adults in the U.S. experience SAD and it typically lasts about 40 percent of the year.” The site also notes that more women have been diagnosed with this disorder than men. Unfortunately, many individuals aren’t diagnosed with SAD because they don’t meet the criteria, says Joseph O’Brien, MBE, MSW, LCSW, and supervisor of clinical services with Inspira Health Center Bridgeton. 

“However, this does not mean that the changes in season/weather/daylight do not impact their emotional well-being,” said O’Brien, who also provides counseling to clients. “It is very common to see an increase to depression/sadness, anger, agitation, and anxiety. Often, sleep patterns, energy levels, and appetite are affected as well.” 

The combination of the novel coronavirus and SAD can also pose problems for young people. 

“I think that we are seeing a transition from social distancing to social isolation, especially in teens,” O’Brien added. “This is particularly troublesome heading into the fall and winter months. The cold weather and decreased daylight might reinforce the tendency to socially isolate.”

Brown and O’Brien suggest several preventative measures in combating SAD, which may have a crippling effect on those who won’t be able to visit their family and friends during the holidays. 

“Stay on routine, even if you don’t want to,” Brown implored. “Stay connected with others, even if you don’t want to. Step out of your comfort zone and utilize some online resources or telephone resources. Many organizations are offering virtual opportunities for socialization. Eat healthy, exercise, and get a good amount of sleep.” 

“Being around people we care about and who care about us might help to insulate us from the exacerbation of any existing symptoms,” O’Brien, who realized he could make a positive impact working one-on-one with people and addressing their emotional well-being after 10 years as a teacher and school administrator, added. 

“To echo what Brandy said … Routine, routine, routine. We cannot control the seasons, weather or daylight; so, focus on the aspects of your life that you can control; trying to sleep well, eating regularly, exercising, maintaining medications and other medical treatments, connecting to others and engaging [in] meaningful activities.”

For information on how to receive emotional support in individual or group sessions, call the Inspira access line at 856-575-4111.


This article was contributed by SNJ Today and appears in the newspaper’s October 28 print edition.