How you can recognize and beat seasonal affective disorder

Millions of people suffer from SAD and might not know they have it.

If you’re feeling sad this time of year, you might have seasonal affective disorder and not recognize the symptoms.

Up to 3% of people of the general population suffer from the disorder, which is prevalent during the times of year with less sunlight, according to the National Library of Medicine. However, the numbers dramatically grow in communities with mental health challenges. As many as 20% of people with depression and 25% with bipolar disorder suffer from SAD.  

Francesca K. Owoo, a couples and family therapist, says SAD is “a type of depression.” (Photo credit: Cokes Media)

“It’s a type of depression,” Francesca K. Owoo, a couples and family therapist, told theGrio. “You’re more irritable, or you’re agitated. You’re low energy. You’re feeling sluggish as if you’re moving in slow motion. We’ll have more symptoms of depression.”  

SAD can happen anytime but is more prevalent when the days become shorter. Research shows that people with darker skin have a harder time naturally absorbing vitamin D from the sun, and Black people are more likely to be vitamin D deficient. Less sunlight can affect sleep patterns and mood and lead to a desire to hibernate or withdraw socially.

“Someone might say, hibernating, but in actuality, they’re really depressed, and they don’t know how to express that,” said Owoo, who specializes in chronic illness and caregiver burnout, particularly within the Black community. “It’s more than likely seasonal affective disorder.

TheGrio talked to mental health experts about SAD, its impact on Black people, and some of the strategies to recognize SAD. The conversations have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Jay Barnett, mental health therapist and author of “Just Heal, Bro,” on the effects of SAD

Jay Burnett speaks at a Just Heal, Bro tour created and produced by Living Hope Productions. (Photo credit: WWJ Photos)

It’s a lot of disconnection. We tend to be withdrawn and stay inside longer because the sun goes down earlier. The biggest effect that it has on us within the Black community is it causes eating disorders because we begin to overeat. So, when we’re inside and watching TV, we entertain ourselves and overeat. We emotionally overeat because we have a lack of community, and we’re not socializing as much as we are in the spring and summer seasons.

It’s hard to make a connection for something that you don’t truly understand. And I think that it’s a challenge, often in the Black and brown communities. And when you don’t make that connection, you don’t have the language to identify what is happening. I think people are aware that something is happening within their body. They noticed they’re not as happy as they were in the summer. They’re not experiencing those joyful moments.  And I think this is why it’s so important for us to talk about SAD because it happens more often. And suicide tends to increase during the changing seasons because, again, people are alone. The more that we have these conversations that bring awareness, it can help people understand that, OK, I’m not as active as I was, I’m putting on weight, I’m eating more.

Lamman Rucker, actor, educator, advocate, and CEO of The Black Gents, on the difficulties of Black males asking for help

Lamman Rucker, actor and educator, addresses an audience. (Photo credit: WWJ)

It’s the general human dynamic but also a male dynamic. Ego, that fear of looking vulnerable or weak or whatever, comes into the conversation. I think Black men suffer from this mystique that is projected on us that although we’re resilient, we’ve got to act like nothing can break us. That’s often the furthest from the truth. But we’ve been perpetuating some of these stereotypes because we sometimes ourselves have overcompensated for those realities or feelings of victimization throughout our history, especially here on this continent. You get this subconscious counter-response, which is, you know, I’m a gangster. This excessive stuff also starts to permeate in the street culture, right? And then all of this tough, violent behavior starts to take on a whole monstrosity of its own. Oh, I need to be feared. Otherwise, I’m gonna continue to be victimized, 

I just think there’s this overcompensation of us kind of having to protect our feelings and not looking like we’re ever potentially at risk.

Farah Harris, founder and CEO of WorkingWell Daily, on seeking help

Farah Harris, founder and CEO of WorkingWell Daily. (Submitted photo)

SAD starts in August for me. It’s almost right after that summer equinox, and we slowly start getting less sunlight. I can feel it in my body. I can see it’s 7:30, and it’s sundown. It used to be 8:45, and we were still hanging out on the patio just a few weeks ago. It can create this kind of cocooning. I’m often, as a clinician, assessing my clients when they’re telling me symptoms of depression. 

You need a strategy, a plan. How do we break up the winter? Is there something that you can look forward to? If you practice self-awareness, you’ll recognize it may be more difficult for you to fall asleep or you’re sleeping too much. Depression is sneaky. One day you’re fine, and suddenly, the cloud comes.

Don’t stay quiet. Is there a safe person that you know, a friend? The barbershop is usually a place where you know people. You can say it’s kind of therapeutic when you have your guy that you can go ahead and talk to and connect and relate if you don’t feel comfortable sitting on someone’s couch for therapy. Are there podcasts or social media platforms that are speaking about Black mental health and Black men’s mental health that you can tap into so that you’re still at least feeding your spirit and getting some kind of tools to slowly usher you into somebody’s therapeutic office because that’s eventually where we want to go? If you’re a person of faith, who are you tapping into that you can trust, whether that’s a minister, a brother in the church, or your pastor? There’s other resources that are out there. The thing to not do is be quiet. The thing not to do is to suffer in silence because, more often than not, you’re not the only one.