Seasonal depression has been especially tough to manage this year.
Kristen Sheldon's bedroom looks like a Caribbean resort: brilliant blue walls, white furniture, lots of plants. It's part of her strategy for dealing with seasonal depression.
Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., where winters are brutal and bear little light, Sheldon developed a set of tools for coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder: Vitamin D supplements, medication, light therapy, journaling, and most recently her dog Ginger Snap.
Still, nothing could have prepared her for this year. Sheldon suffers from chronic depression and anxiety disorders that make it difficult to differentiate between her seasonal symptoms and, well, regular depression. During any other year, the onset of her SAD is marked by seasonal cues like winding back the clocks, a string of gloomy days, or public pools closing for the summer. This year, those signs have been muddled by everything 2020 has thrown her way.
Sheldon was furloughed from her job at the National Building Museum in June and has been searching for work since. She's been especially stressed out by the pandemic and presidential election and has been pulling on every available resource since to manage her depressive symptoms.
"I've definitely been trying to institute good behavior to help as much as I can because I don't have a lot of resources to fight it otherwise as opposed to years past or in general," she says.
Courtesy of/Kristen Sheldon
Plants are a big help for Sheldon when addressing seasonal depression.
Courtesy of/Kristen Sheldon
As the public health emergency enters its ninth month, locals are settling into a fall and winter unlike any other. Some find themselves dealing with seasonal depression atop pandemic-specific triggers and must now manage their symptoms in new ways and without access to the same resources they once had.
During the winter, SAD is marked by shorter days, less exposure to sunlight, and a general apathy known as "winter blues" that occurs around the same time every year. But the condition is not cold weather-specific (some people experience SAD in the summer), and it's generally considered a type of depression characterized by recurrent seasonal patterns, according to the National Institute On Mental Health.
An estimated 10 million Americans experience SAD (women four times more likely than men) and many people with SAD report at least one other psychiatric disorder, like depression or alcohol abuse. Common treatments include light therapy, Vitamin D supplementation, antidepressant medication, and counseling. If these don't work, medication and behavioral therapies may be prescribed.
For Haley Johnson, using medication to treat her depressive symptoms this year is a last-ditch effort. Johnson says her seasonal depression "has a bit of a hand-holding history with my bipolar disorder." She tried medication to treat bipolar disorder when she was in high school but had a negative reaction to it. Now, she's giving it another go.
"Because of the election and the pandemic and all the stress that's making all these symptoms so much worse ... I am going to see a psychiatric nurse who is going to put me back on medication," she says.
I relate to Johnson's experience. Working in a field like journalism that forces you to face the reality we now live in feels like a conduit for seasonal depression. I have seasonal depression and anxiety and recently started taking medication to address those issues, but lately, it's been harder to tell if I'm feeling anxiety or depression, if it's seasonal or perennial, and if that even matters.
Justin Frank, a former professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center, says this year seasonal depression has been replaced by pandemic anxiety, and that the two go hand in hand. Many of his patients have been worried about COVID-19 and the presidential election (some are still anxious about President Trump's refusal to concede and what it will mean for the country), which makes him think a lot of the anxiety people are feeling is situational.
As misfortune might have it, there's a huge crossover between seasonal depression and pandemic anxiety. Because SAD is often triggered by daylight saving time, Frank believes that for those who suffer, the lack of light every day is a subconscious reminder of death.
"The anxiety is about a fear of death, whereas depression is about a recognition of its inevitability, so people can get very sad and upset," he says.
If any year in recent history has provided a stark reminder of our mortality, 2020 is surely a contender. So far, the pandemic has killed more than 260,000 people nationwide. In D.C., at least 690 people have died since Feb. 29 with cases on the rise again across the region.
Jelena Kecmanovic, founder and director of the Arlington/D.C. Behavior Therapy Institute and an adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University, says factors that contribute to mood disorders and depression, in particular, are exacerbated this year. She's seeing more mental health problems this year related to depression, anxiety, and interpersonal problems like frustration.
"And why is that happening? Well, because people are dealing with so many of these stressors," she says. "The pandemic being number one in terms of just fear and just anxiety about getting [COVID-19] and about indecision and this conflict often with family members, of where is that safety line."
Kari, who didn't want to give her last because her job prefers she not, says she's felt pandemic-induced seasonal depression this year. Up until a few weeks ago, she was working a retail gig. Having to remind people every day to wear their masks when they came to shop made her realize this winter is going to be brutal.
"Most of the time these weren't people who were actually actively refusing and being like, 'Well, no, I'm not going to wear a mask,' Kari says. "It was mostly people who honestly seemed to be forgetting to wear the mask. And there's something about that is, I think, even more frightening."
Kari suffered from generalized depression growing up and says it's mostly subsided. She's been proactive about treating her seasonal depression but is anxious about what her symptoms are going to be like this year.
She's taking Vitamin D supplements, melatonin, using a SAD light lamp, and sticking to an earlier sleep schedule. She's felt much better since starting a new job that allows her to work from home. And though she's not convinced any of these strategies will distract her from what's going on long enough to have a profound impact, she's taking little victories where she can.
"I just stick to these routines fairly consistently, especially because now I know how much [seasonal depression] impacts my ability to focus and get through the day." she says. "But at the same time, I also don't intend to be too hard on myself about it ... there's enough to feel bad about this year."
Kecmanovic has been working with her patients to find new ways of finding excitement in the coming months and holiday season in lieu of socially distant celebrations and limited access to the outdoors. She suggests people do their best to bear the cold weather and get outside this winter.
Frank's advice is for people this year is to listen and connect with each other's worries.
"The most important thing that's helpful for me is to listen to people and not just immediately jump in and try to help," he says. "The biggest help you can give a person is for them to feel understood, and for them not to feel crazy."