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Combatting seasonal affective disorder during the coronavirus pandemic

Experts say research indicates about 10 to 15 percent of Maine's population struggles with seasonal affective disorder, out of about 10 million Americans.

HOULTON, Maine — Nights are longer than days come mid-November in Maine, which typically means a long winter is on the horizon. For most of us, that means physical changes, like bundling up in coats and cranking the heat on the drive to work -- but for some, it can mean emotional changes, too.

Seasonal affective disorder, or what some call the "winter blues", becomes more prevalent the further you get from the equator and is characterized as depression that occurs at the same time every year, generally when there is less sunlight. Scientifically, research indicates that a lack of daylight triggers the production of melatonin in the brain. That's why people tend to get more tired when there's less daylight -- as a result, sometimes affecting their moods.  

Signs of SAD can include feeling alone or isolated, being tired or having low energy, eating more (especially craving carbohydrates), wanting to sleep all of the time, and withdrawing from social circles. Greg Marley (LCSW), the clinical director at Maine's National Alliance on Mental Illness, says research indicates about 10 to 15 percent of our population struggles with SAD, out of about 10 million Americans.

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"Moving here, my seasonal depression through the seasons -- it definitely got worse," 27-year-old Samuel Cosman expressed to NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom. He moved to Houlton from Indiana and says he's noticed that the longer winters take a toll. Cosman hasn't been officially diagnosed with SAD but says he has been battling clinical depression since he was a teenager -- and experts say those people are often more at risk. 

"When it would get the most out of me, I would notice that I would sleep more," Cosman said, describing his seasonal depression. "I wouldn't be as motivated to do things that I used to like to do."

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Experts say the coronavirus pandemic has already taken a toll on mental health, resulting in a sense of loss of hope for some -- and making normal traditions like celebrating the holidays with family more difficult. That's why SAD could affect more people this year -- or have a greater impact on those it already impacts.

"For all of us during this period of time, we are going to get at times feeling a little bit squirrely, a little cooped up, a little stressed," Marley expressed to NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom.

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Experts say the most important thing to do is stay proactive.

"Really take notes and inventory to start to recognize what symptoms maybe you are experiencing, and then try to get ahead of it," Angela Fileccia (LCSW) told NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom.

She and Marley say steps people can take at home to try to feel better include exercising consistently; spending time outdoors in the sun; connecting with family and friends, whether in person or via Zoom; keeping a normal sleep and wake schedule; finding ways to be useful; using vitamin D supplements; and buying high-intensity lights of 10,000 lux or more to sit in front of for 30 to 45 minutes a day. Employers also have resources sometimes, like EAP programs and wellness opportunities.  

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If you're experiencing severe symptoms or having thoughts of death or suicide, you should reach out to your health care provider. Other immediate resources include:

  • Maine Statewide Crisis Hotline: 1-888-568-1112 (Voice), or 711 (Maine Relay)
  • NAMI Maine Helpline: 1-800-464-5767 (Press 1)
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or Live Online Chat
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Treatment Referral Helpline: 1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727)