How to cope with seasonal depression through another pandemic winter

·5 min read
With COVID-19, mental health experts say some of these issues could be much worse this holiday season. (Shutterstock / Zivica Kerkez - image credit)
With COVID-19, mental health experts say some of these issues could be much worse this holiday season. (Shutterstock / Zivica Kerkez - image credit)

Every winter is a bit of a struggle for Chris van Ouwerkerk. It has been that way for a long time.

The 35-year-old lawyer and one-time candidate to the provincial legislature says he's suffered from bouts of depression during the season for most of his adult life.

But he did not realize how serious the issue was until tragedy struck his family on November 2009.

"I could tell that every winter season, I'd start to get a little bit down. Things would feel different," said van Ouwerkerk.

"But it never really was a struggle until probably about 12 years ago, when I lost my older brother, and the floodgates kind of opened."

Van Ouwerkerk's brother, Tyler, also struggled with his own mental health issues. Chris van Ouwerkerk said some of them were related to difficulties he went through after he came out as gay.

"I was suffering from depression, from the situation of losing my brother. But it also opened up this kind of awareness." - Chris van Ouwerkerk

Tyler van Ouwerkerk's death due to an accidental opioid overdose affected his brother immensely.

"The next five to seven years were really rough," Chris van Ouwerkerk said. "I definitely wasn't in a great headspace for most winters during that time."

Though the pain from his brother's death was a big part of his depression, van Ouwekerk slowly began to realize there was something else to it besides pure grief.

"I was able to look back before I had lost my brother and realize that, you know, I did have those feelings. I did have those kind of thoughts and symptoms that that would be associated with seasonal affectiveness," he said.

"I was suffering from depression, from the situation of losing my brother. But it also opened up this kind of awareness."

More than the winter blues

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), formally known as major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, is a type of depressive disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of depression in late fall or winter.

Van Ouwerkerk said he was first diagnosed with situational depression around 2010, and that it was heavily suggested it was either SAD or made worse by SAD.

Submitted by Chris van Ouwerkerk
Submitted by Chris van Ouwerkerk

SAD is only one type of mental health issue that presents itself as the year winds down. With COVID-19, mental health experts say some of these issues could be much worse this holiday season.

"Often when we experience bouts of depression and loneliness coming into this season, we have the spring to look forward to, and social outings, and getting out more and things like that," said Julia Ramsay, manager of community outreach at the P.E.I. division of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

"Knowing that there is potential for this pandemic to last into the spring could potentially cause people more anxiety and not having as much to look forward to without finding different ways to cope."

Kathy Jones, executive director of Family Service P.E.I., said there was an increase in mental health issues on the Island before the pandemic even became a factor.

A Statistics Canada survey last year showed that the number of Islanders consulting mental health professionals had risen between 2015 and 2019 from 10.6 per cent to 19.9 per cent.

"We know that COVID has affected people's mental health greatly and in particular because the public health measures that have been in place. No one ever expected that this would go on so long," Jones said.

"The fact that Islanders were already struggling with mental health issues, put a pandemic on top of that, put ... the seasonality of some issues around mood and anxiety in combination, and it's really important through all of that that people take good care of themselves."

Ways to cope

Jones said there are many things people can do to cope during the rough winter months, including practicing mindfulness and breathing techniques.

She said exercise is "huge," and can really improve someone's mood in a very short period of time.

"Really push yourself to get outside when you can, and particularly in daylight hours," Jones said. "A quick walk on your lunch break, as an example, is another really great way to to get through the winter months."

Ramsay recommends that people get as much natural light as possible, and to stick to a set schedule.

"Oftentimes having something to look forward to or having a goal to accomplish can help keep you positive," she said.

"I think it's really important that we give ourselves credit for the little things that we accomplish each day, whether they are big or small."

Staying connected

Both Jones and Ramsay recommend that people make sure to keep socially connected, even if pandemic restrictions make it hard for Islanders to do so.

"Finding alternative ways to stay socially connected is just as important to our anxiety and our loneliness," Ramsay said.

"So whether that be through video chats or phone calls, outdoor socially distanced visits with family or friends, again, connecting with like local self help groups or your peer support groups."

Van Ouwerkerk said that his family has played an important role in helping him "get through" when he's in a depressed mood.

"There was a lot of support in my immediate family. My wife and daughter are big parts of that now. But in the early stage of it, it was my parents, my younger brother and my older sister," he said.

He said over the last few years, it's become progressively easier to get through the winter. Now that he has a young family, van Ouwerkerk also has some things to look forward to.

"Having a one-year-old daughter, I'm excited for her to to experience [Christmas]. Last year was her first one, but she was extremely little, so I'm looking forward to it," he said.

"But I also am very aware of what can happen. I spent one night [around Christmas Eve] years ago huddled under a hay tractor trailer in a service parking lot, trying to hide from the world. And you know, I certainly don't want to ever get back to that.

"So I go into the season just with my head up and aware of what could happen, and I try to stay as positive as possible about it."

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