For many Americans, daily sadness during the winter months has become a part of life. This experience is often due to seasonal depression, a mental health condition that affects over 10 million Americans each year. This mental health condition can be extremely debilitating and can have harmful effects across an individual's professional and personal lives.
People who suffer from seasonal depression also have to deal with added stressors from the COVID-19 pandemic this year. Since the early spring, the pandemic has significantly disrupted almost every aspect of daily life, and these changes have presented a range of mental health challenges.
In the post below, we cover the effects of seasonal depression and COVID-19 on mental health. Additionally, we cover how the two phenomena can have harmful, compounding effects when people experience them together. Lastly, we discuss ways that people can combat mental health challenges from seasonal depression and COVID-19, and we cover available treatment programs for seasonal depression.
What is seasonal depression?
Seasonal depression is a mental health condition that typically affects people during the winter months. The onset of seasonal depression usually occurs during the late fall and early winter, and symptoms continue until early spring. The Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) classifies seasonal depression as "Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern," and some people refer to seasonal depression as "holiday depression."
As a form of major depressive disorder, seasonal depression's primary symptom is periods of persistent sadness. In addition to periods of persistent sadness, common symptoms of seasonal depression include:
- Self-isolating behavior and feelings of loneliness.
- Changes in sleeping and eating patterns.
- Weight gain and weight loss.
- A loss of enjoyment in hobbies or relationships.
- Lethargy and a lack of motivation.
- Feelings of worthlessness and guilt.
- Suicidal ideation and feelings of hopelessness.
Often, seasonal depression can lead to substance abuse problems. People may start abusing drugs and alcohol in an attempt to cope with symptoms of their depression. In other cases, a person can begin with substance abuse problems that later trigger depression. When a person suffers from seasonal depression and substance abuse problems simultaneously, behavioral health professionals refer to the person as having a "dual diagnosis."
How does the COVID-19 pandemic affect seasonal depression?
For most people, the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly came out of nowhere, and the effects of the pandemic were quick to take effect. Lockdowns, social distancing, masks, and other safety precautions quickly became a part of everyday life and led to significant disruptions to people's routines. Schools and businesses closed without much warning, and the virus became the top news story across news networks.
Unfortunately, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have added a lot of stress to people's lives, and this stress can be challenging to handle. Sources of COVID-19 related stress and challenges include:
- Economic difficulties. Due to lockdowns orders and changes in consumer behavior, many businesses have had to close permanently, and, in other cases, employees have had to budget for reduced hours. The economic consequences have left many people unable to pay their bills, and this economic-based stress can be harmful to a person's mental health.
- Feelings of loneliness. Lockdowns and social distancing guidelines have resulted in many people having limited interactions with friends and family. While people can connect virtually, it is not the same as in-person contact. Due to these pandemic-related changes, many people are experiencing intense feelings of loneliness.
- Fear regarding one's health. Many people are experiencing anxiety and constant worry regarding getting infected with COVID-19. The virus is now widespread throughout the country, and it is hard to avoid exposure entirely. In addition to worrying about one's own health, people may also face significant worry regarding friends and loved ones' health. This ongoing fear regarding health and safety can be very harmful to people's mental well-being.
It is also essential to note that the above sources of stress have been present for months, and this prolonged period has worsened the effects that the pandemic has on people's mental health. The effects of the pandemic have been occurring since March 2020, and even while there are several vaccines on the horizon, the pandemic will still be a problem for several months.
The combined impact of seasonal depression and COVID-19 this year
Seasonal depression and the effects of COVID-19 are plenty to deal with individually. However, this year, many people will have to cope with both experiences together. Seasonal depression and COVID-19 stress can have compounding effects that reinforce each other, including:
- Lockdowns and social distancing reinforcing self-isolation. People who suffer from seasonal depression may self-isolate and limit social interaction. Lockdown orders and social distancing may reinforce that behavior and hinder a person's mental health recovery.
- Economic struggles may contribute to substance abuse issues. Some people who face seasonal depression turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their symptoms. These individuals may also face economic struggles from COVID-19, and those challenges may contribute to the person intensifying substance abuse behaviors in an attempt to cope.
- Routine changes from COVID-19 can reinforce changes to sleep and eating patterns. People who suffer from seasonal depression often experience changes to sleep and eating patterns. These changes can lead to ongoing tiredness, weight gain, and weight loss. Sudden changes to routines due to COVID-19, such as parents having to stay home and watch their kids during school closures, can reinforce these often harmful changes to sleep and eating habits.
The combined effects of COVID-19 and seasonal depression can be extremely harmful to a person's mental health, and they can also be challenging to overcome. People who face these mental health challenges should know that they are not alone and other people are going through similar experiences.
How to combat seasonal depression and available treatment options
People who suffer from seasonal depression and stress from COVID-19 can try several at-home methods to improve their symptoms. These methods include:
- Taking time to enjoy leisure activities.
- Maintaining a healthy diet.
- Limiting alcohol and tobacco consumption.
- Taking time to socialize with others, even if it is only virtually for now.
- Getting enough sleep each night.
Additionally, people can access professional behavioral health treatment to help manage seasonal depression. At Vista del Mar Hospital, our clinical team offers a range of behavioral health programs for seasonal depression, including adult inpatient programs, adult outpatient services, and intensive short-term treatment. Each program uses evidence-based treatment methods, including individual therapy and group therapy sessions. We also offer unique spiritual support services.
Getting started at Vista del Mar Hospital
If you or a loved one struggles with seasonal depression or other mental health challenges, getting started with treatment is easy. To learn more, reach out to our team at Vista del Mar Hospital by contacting us online or calling us at (805) 653-6434. Our team can help answer any questions you may have and schedule you or a loved one for a free mental health assessment.