Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Ask Ellie: Seasonal depression is real and can be treated

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder include fatigue, weight gain, depressed mood, loss of energy, feeling worthless, even in despair

Dear Ellie: Is it just me or is January the most depressing month of the year? For years, I’ve known that once New Years’ Eve was over, there’d be bleak days ahead.

Who wants to go outside when it’s gloomy, gets dark early, and black ice hiding under a snowfall can cause a serious accident?

That’s some of what affects me physically… but what about the winter “blues” I feel when the only thing to look forward to is Valentines’ Day?

It’s weeks until Feb. 14, and often lonely when you’re like me, a single woman, 34, with no partner, and no affordable time off from work for a winter getaway, not even for a week.

Ok, that’s enough moaning. But do you have any suggestions for getting through the bleakest of days?

Dark Days, Lonely Nights

No, it’s not just you experiencing this reaction. SAD, the fitting acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder, has been understood by doctors and scientists for many years. It can affect people for a month at a time and is believed to be related to how we humans respond to sunlight.

My own reaction to wakening to dark mornings is to turn on every light in my place, plus the radio for voices to stir my slower-waking mind.

But some people, possibly you, need a more directed approach to hopefully combatting SAD.

Psychiatry classifies it as a form of depression, described in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. It usually occurs during the fall/winter months when there’s less sunlight and usually improves with the arrival of spring.

Symptoms of SAD include fatigue, even with a lot of sleep! Also, weight gain associated with overeating and carbohydrate cravings is common, as is depressed mood, loss of energy, feeling worthless, even in despair.

But SAD can be treated and become manageable. Example: Sitting in front of a light therapy box for about 20 minutes first thing each morning. Cognitive behavioural therapy can be effective. Also, specific anti-depressant medications are prescribed for some patients.

The sooner you contact your family doctor and/or a therapist for virtual appointments, the better. Your doctor will want to make sure that there’s no other medical cause for your changed behaviour and symptoms.

Dear Ellie: I’m one of five children, my sister lives 400 miles away, caregiving for our elderly mom who has mobility issues.

I was returning home from visits feeling traumatized because my sister constantly yells across rooms. But the only way to see Mom was in this chaotic home.

I quit going for Christmas and went every couple of years in the summer, when I didn’t have to be inside much. I couldn’t handle my sister’s rules.

Last summer Mom was turning 90. Summer time, I went there and slept in a neighbour’s trailer over five days.

I hugged Mom good bye knowing I’ll never go again if my sister’s there. After dinner, she announced, not joking, “Everyone can go home now.” My other brother and his wife spent over $2000 to travel there.

No one wins in a family feud so I said nothing about her disrespect. It’d only hurt Mom. Any wise words for me?

Disgusted Sibling

You said the wise words yourself: “No one wins in a family feud.”

Your sister’s providing needed care on behalf of five mostly-absentee siblings. She’s resentful. She yells across physical distance from her “patient” instead of always rushing over. She vents her frustration and control.

Thank her.

My friend, 47, gets involved with men who profess love but are unable to become her partner. The man she’s been “waiting for” these past five years still lives with his divorced wife. They have two teenagers who present behaviour problems he says he “can’t just ignore and leave.”

She argues that his ex can handle the kids because she’s not working, while he supports the whole family. She says he can visit his children but should move in with her.

How can I help her see that it’s never going to happen?

Unavailable Love

A friend has limited powers in such matters. This woman prefers her fantasy to your stark reality. She’s desperate to win her goal of a live-in relationship, while ignoring that his ex holds all the cards.

Unfortunately, and unfairly, he’s had her available to him when he had free time, but there’s little-to-no chance of a live-in relationship for them.

Ellie’s tip of the day

Some people become their elderly parent’s caregiver because no other relative would or could.

Send relationship questions to ellie@thestar.ca.