As days get shorter and the weather outside turns cold, some couples may spend more time bundling up with their boo indoors with an unwanted guest: seasonal depression.
About 5 percent of the U.S. population is likely to experience symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression characterized by its seasonal pattern which often begins in the late fall and ends in spring or summer. Some experts say there’s a chance the coronavirus pandemic will make this year’s winter cycle worse than usual.
Since mid-April, the number of people reporting symptoms of depression during the pandemic tripled from 8.5 percent to 27.8 percent, according to research by JAMA Network Open, a medical journal by the American Medical Association.
Because COVID-19 has limited the activities that can alleviate triggers for depression, “I think we might expect more people to be at risk for more of these mental health symptoms,” says Dr. Krystal Lewis, a clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health.
As cases rise and more restrictions are instated, fewer interactions with friends and family —as well as closed gyms putting up more barriers to exercise, and stay-at-home orders leading to less time spent outside— might mean seasonal depression is all but an inevitability to those prone to it around this time of year.
Just because we’re physically close to those we interact with at home, doesn’t mean we feel equipped to discuss mental health with the ones we love, especially for mental illnesses like SAD, which aren’t consistent year-round. We spoke to Dr. Lewis and other experts for tips on how you can support a partner who may be having a difficult time.
DO pay attention to patterns
Despite its acronym, some forms of depression such as SAD don't always look like sadness. Sometimes it’s presented through irritability, anger or levels of agitation that you don’t normally see, says Dr. Vaile Wright, licensed psychologist and senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association.
Disruptions to sleep and appetite are other common symptoms, such as if your partner is sleeping or eating a lot more or less than usual. Another key behavior to look out for is withdrawal.
“With Covid, I think sometimes we want connection and [not getting it] is hard, but this is different,” says Dr. Wright. “It’s really withdrawing in the sense that you’re not returning texts that you would normally return, you’re missing the weekly family happy hour on Zoom or whatever the case may be.”
Such changes in mood and behavior are common symptoms of SAD, but it’s important to pay attention to them over time so you can distinguish a regular bad day from something more serious.
“If a partner notices that there’s a consistent pattern of a low mood, lack of engagement, sometimes it’s very easy, especially in relationships, to take that very personally, as opposed to noticing that, Oh, maybe this might be a mental health issue,” says Dr. Lewis, who specializes in helping people manage anxiety and other mental health conditions.
DON’T be judgmental and criticize
Everyone experiences SAD differently, and if you have a milder case of the “winter blues” while your partner is experiencing the disorder to the nth degree, you don’t want to invalidate their experience by assuming that you’re both dealing with the same issues. Avoid judgmental statements like ‘This pandemic is hard on everyone. I get myself out of bed even though I don’t feel like doing it, so why can’t you?’ which can create a toxic situation for couples.
“It may be helpful to think back to a time when you were feeling weak, tired and out of sorts. Try to tap into wellsprings of empathy within yourself. That’s often helpful in order to not judge,” says Dr. Norman Rosenthal, the clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine who gave Seasonal Affective Disorder its name in the 1980s.
Asking your significant other “How can I help you?” is a great place to start, although the person with SAD might not always have an answer. Still, when the person with SAD is expressing themselves, it’s important that the other partner be an active listener without trying to give advice or solve the problem.
“I think that’s where a lot of people get tripped up. They feel like they can’t approach or talk to [the person with SAD] because they don’t know how to help them, and really that’s not always what people need,” Dr. Wright says. “People sometimes just need someone to listen to them, to hear their experience, trust that what they’re saying is real for them and validate their struggle.”
DO motivate and encourage
It’s important for people with SAD to have a strong support system, but maintaining friendships outside the home can feel draining, especially when many of us are experiencing our own stressors. While it may seem easier for a person dealing with SAD to stay inside and away from others, you shouldn’t feel like their isolation is inevitable.
“Don’t make [SAD] the thing that excludes you, make it the thing that includes you,” Dr. Rosenthal says.
You could buy them one of the sunlight-mimicking lamps that can help alleviate SAD symptoms, and suggest activities that don't require a lot from your partner. For example, says Dr. Rosenthal: “‘How about we do a jigsaw puzzle in front of the lights together?’ That would be a fun thing, a couple thing and a healthy thing. Try and have a win-win situation wherever possible.”
A supportive partner can ask to join their significant other in some relaxing activities that slow down emotional reactions, such as coloring or journaling. Try waking up earlier together so that you can squeeze in some extra rays of sunlight during the day, or sit with them and suggest having their morning cup of coffee close to the window that faces east and thus gets the most sunlight. The key is to be encouraging, but not forceful, Dr. Rosenthal says.
Jordan Madison, a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist in Maryland, suggests understanding your partner’s love language can also be helpful if they communicate to you that that’s what they need.
“If acts of service are their love language — they really like when you take the initiative to wash the dishes so that they don’t have to — or you buy them a thoughtful gift, those can be things that you do that take initiative,” Madison says.
DON’T act like you’re their therapist
“For couples especially, it’s important to work together as a team to manage mental illness, but know when it’s time to seek outside help. It can cause a lot of conflict within the relationship when one person is telling the other person ‘Well, you need to do this,’” Dr. Lewis says.
Depression is treatable, and psychotherapy is one effective strategy that can make some days easier. Dr. Wright suggests asking to join your partner in a therapy session and use the opportunity to ask an expert more specific questions on what your role should be and how you can help. You might even learn that therapy sessions are what you need right now, whether you have SAD or not.
“It’s really important that everyone take care of their own mental health as much as possible and practice self-care,” Dr. Lewis says. “You don’t necessarily want to spend too much time focusing on your partner. It’s difficult in that way, but you have to preserve your own well-being as well.”
If you or someone you know need mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.