Seeing the light: Experts worry that winter months will be tough for people with mental health issues
Zach Singer knows the upcoming winter months are going to be difficult.
The 21-year-old senior at Ohio State University has anxiety and depression, which he said has been exacerbated by COVID-19.
“I experienced some very low lows,” he said. “Having everything flipped upside down as someone who really relies on control, consistency and does not handle failure well — it was really hard for me to come to terms with the fact that all of this was happening and it was entirely outside of my control.”
Mental health experts are worried what this winter will mean for people with anxiety and depression as COVID-19 remains a problem and people are spending a lot of time at home.
Depression tends to be worse during the fall and winter months because there is less sunlight and fewer opportunities to go outside and be active, said Dr. K. Luan Phan, chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
“We have this double-whammy of the season and the ongoing physical and social distancing that will be a double hit for those vulnerable to depression,” he said.
Some of the things people have been doing to help cope with COVID-19, such as social distancing outside with friends, relies so much on good weather, but the winter will make those things harder.
“We worry for everyone that as the seasons change, not only do you have less light outside, but there’s less opportunities to do some of the outside activities that we’ve been encouraging as a way to maintain people’s mental health,” said Dr. Delaney Smith, medical director of ADHAM Board of Franklin County.
Mental health experts are urging people to exercise, eat healthfully, seek sunlight and get enough sleep during the winter months.
Lori Criss, director of Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, is encouraging people to come up with a plan for their mental health and watch out for each other.
“Plan for what you are going to do over the colder months,” she said. “A lot of people feel the uncertainty the pandemic has created is very stressful, but if we’re thinking in smaller chunks of time and just thinking now until the end of the year in small ways.”
It’s also important for people to ask for help and be mindful if anxiety and depression increase, Phan said.
“Are these feelings getting more and more pervasive? Are these feelings getting in the way of your ability to work at home or be a good parent, be a good spouse or be a good friend? I think when those warning signs come on ... you have to seek help,” Phan said.
Singer is the president and founder of Mental Health Matters, an organization at Ohio State whose mission is to end the stigma surrounding mental health. He recommends that people with seasonal affective disorder invest in light therapy.
“It’s something that works really well for me,” he said. “It can make a really big difference if you struggle with seasonal depression, which I think is going to be emphasized by COVID-19.”
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression in which the symptoms typically emerge during the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight. It is estimated to affect some 10 million people.
Light therapy involves using a 10,000 lux lightbox that mimics natural outdoor light, and it’s recommended that people use the lightbox at the same time every day, typically in the morning for about 30 minutes.
COVID-19 already has made mental health struggles such as anxiety and depression worse the last seven months since the start of the pandemic. About 40% of adults in the United States reported struggling with mental health or substance use during late June, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’ve seen an increase in emotional distress,” Criss said. “Anytime there’s a trauma or a crisis like this, you expect people to feel more anxious, or fear or uncertainty.”
The MHA Crisis Text Line saw a spike in conversations during the initial months of the pandemic, with 1,009 conversations in March and 865 in April. The number of conversations dipped during the summer to a low of 484 in June, but it has been steadily increasing ever since, most recently with 684 in September.
“We had more calls in March and April of this year then we did previously, but really, it’s following pretty much the same pattern,” Criss said. “There is a seasonal nature to the use of these kinds of hotlines or services in general.”
Some people who didn’t previously struggle with mental health before the pandemic are now experiencing anxiety and depression.
“We’re seeing folks who hadn’t really had mental health problems before this starting to have some symptoms of depression or feeling down, either sleeping too much or sleeping too little,” Smith said. “We are seeing new anxiety disorders in individuals who hadn’t before experienced them.”
Mental health experts also are concerned that some people are turning to alcohol to cope, especially heading into winter.
“Sadly, when you are at home and you don’t have some of the boundaries of going to work, you might drink throughout the day, or you might drink earlier than you might have had in the past,” Phan said.
Sales of alcoholic beverages have gone up during the pandemic. There were 1,483,917 gallons of alcoholic beverages sold in Ohio in May, a sharp increase from 1,355,467 gallons in May 2019, according to the Ohio Department of Commerce.
“Sometimes we see when people are feeling anxious or depressed they may even without realizing it turn to substances to dull those feelings,” Smith said. “We really encourage people to limit that. Drugs and alcohol make people feel more anxious and depressed.”