Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is more than just the ‘winter blues’ – it’s a real mental health condition recognised by the NHS. Those with SAD experience temporary but severe depressive episodes, usually during the winter months when days are shortest. Unlike the winter blues, SAD significantly interferes with the ability to function on a day-to-day basis. People with SAD often have difficulty going to work or school, maintaining relationships, and taking care of themselves.
Though anyone living more than 30 degrees away from the equator can develop SAD, London residents are particularly susceptible to seasonal depression. As many as 1 in 3 people in the UK suffer from SAD, versus just 10% of the US population. In London, which receives most of its annual rainfall over the winter, the amount of natural light available to residents is even lower than the UK average – Meaning that SAD rates could be even higher.
Lockdowns, Travel Bans Putting Londoners at Risk
With over 35% of Londoners working more than 50 hours per week and mental health funding at an all-time low, winter vacations have traditionally provided much-needed respite for London residents. Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, cheap flights and easy access to Heathrow Airport made annual trips to Spain, Italy, and Portugal a viable form of therapy for SAD and other seasonal mental health issues. However, with much of the UK under lockdown this winter and subject to numerous international travel bans, experts worry that the current mental health crisis could quickly come to a head. As the cold, dark months worsen the sense of fear and loneliness associated with lockdowns, the Centre for Mental Health estimates that at least 20% of the British population will require mental health care. For many, this care won’t be immediately accessible.
In London, the situation may become especially challenging due to demographic factors. The population of London is younger, more diverse, and less affluent than the national average. The average age in London is just 35.6, almost five years younger than the UK average of 40 years. Nearly 30% of Londoners live in poverty, far above the national rate of 22%, and 44% are ethnic minorities. Research shows that people in these groups are especially vulnerable to the detrimental mental health effects of lockdowns.
The prevalence of pre-existing mental health conditions in London is also a significant concern: Rates of anxiety and depression are higher in London than anywhere else in Europe, with 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 10 children having a diagnosable mental health condition. Up to 42% of London adults struggle with persistent anxiety, compared to the already-high UK average of 38.5%. Similarly, over 26% of Londoners report having a low level of life satisfaction, versus 23% of people elsewhere in the UK. Confinement, isolation, and uncertainty about the future have the potential to make these issues substantially worse over the winter.
In addition to reducing quality of life in the UK, declining mental health may worsen the COVID-19 crisis itself. The World Health Organization has warned that people with anxiety and depression are more likely to contract and transmit the virus than mentally healthy individuals. Treating SAD and other mental health conditions should therefore be a top priority in the fight against COVID-19.
SAD: Are You at Risk?
If you are used to going abroad every winter, SAD can catch you off guard. Spending just two weeks in a sunny climate during January is sufficient to prevent SAD in many cases, so habitual winter travellers may not even know they have the condition. Clinical psychologist Dr. Tali Shenfield recommends to watch for these symptoms of seasonal depression:
- Sleeping much more or much less than usual.
- Feeling tired and lethargic during the day.
- Having an increased appetite or an excessive craving for carbohydrates.
- Weight gain.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Social withdrawal.
- Frequently struggling with negative emotions, such as anxiety, a sense of hopelessness, or low self-worth.
For some people, seasonal affective disorder becomes severe enough to cause suicidal thoughts. If this happens to you, seek professional help immediately; don’t try to manage your condition alone.
Coping with SAD & Other Mental Health Problems During Lockdown
Though travel restrictions will complicate seasonal depression and anxiety for many London residents, help is still available. If you experience any of the symptoms listed above, talk to your GP to determine the best course of action. Severe cases of SAD often require treatment with medication and therapy, along with lifestyle modifications. Milder cases, on the other hand, can sometimes be managed with the following self-help strategies:
- Get as much natural light as possible.
Exercising outside can reduce SAD symptoms, even during periods of inclement weather. Up to 35% of ultraviolet rays penetrate through overcast skies, making morning walks an excellent complement to other forms of light therapy. Exercise also stimulates the release of mood-enhancing endorphins, boosts energy levels, and improves sleep quality.
- Eat a nutritious diet.
Eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer refined carbohydrates may reduce the severity of SAD and other depressive disorders. Filling up on fresh produce, lean protein, and whole grains will also prevent SAD-related weight gain and provide consistent energy throughout the day.
- Try light therapy.
Light therapy involves daily exposure to one or two hours of bright artificial light, usually in the morning. Light therapy is typically performed with the aid of a special ‘light box’ that patients can use at home. Patients may also be provided with a light-emitting alarm clock designed to emulate sunrise.
Though natural light is the best treatment for SAD, artificial light can reduce depressive symptoms when days are short and dark. Light therapy works by simulating longer days, which stabilizes SAD patients’ circadian rhythms and hormone levels. When administered by a trained professional, light therapy induces remission in up to 62% of SAD cases.
- Reach out to others.
People with depression frequently withdraw from others because they feel tired, irritable, or ashamed. For many SAD sufferers, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened this tendency to self-isolate. Socializing is more complicated during lockdowns, which is daunting for individuals who already feel fatigued. Likewise, sharing negative emotions is particularly difficult during times when bad news is already prevalent.
Though these concerns are valid, maintaining contact with a support network is crucial in managing depression. If you have SAD, tell your friends and family about your condition to help them understand what you’re going through. Ask your loved ones to check on you regularly if you don’t have the energy to reach out.
When possible, use video conferencing to communicate with people you can’t visit in person (rather than calling or texting them). Face-to-face communication is particularly helpful for fighting depression because seeing others smile stimulates the brain’s reward centre. Smiling also triggers the release of stress-reducing neuropeptides.
Though times of crisis often exacerbate mental health issues, they’re also powerful learning opportunities: By discovering new ways to manage depression and anxiety this winter, you’ll improve your repertoire of coping skills and become more resilient. You’ll also participate in London’s proud tradition of using positive action and social solidarity to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. By working together to advocate for mental health awareness, we can build a brighter, more compassionate post-pandemic future.