It’s been a long, cold winter in Toronto. According to Environment Canada, this past February was the coldest that Eastern Ontario has seen for 115 years.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the sunshine and warmer temperatures seen in the first weeks of March have been a relief to Torontonians.
That sunshine has been more than just a welcome break for those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), however.
Although SAD can affect people in all seasons, experts say the majority of Canadians start to show symptoms in the late fall, when temperatures start to drop and the days get shorter. However, it’s a misconception to believe it’s the cold weather that’s responsible for SAD.
According to Dr. Robert Levitan, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and researcher at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the lack of sunlight is the main culprit when it comes to SAD.
“The factor that controls the disorder is light and daylight,” he said. “I find that sometimes when it is very cold but there is lots of snow, there is more light… if there is a lot of blue sky, even though it’s cold, people prefer that.”
According to Levitan, this also explains why British Columbia, known for its grey, rainy winters, has the highest rate of SAD in Canada.
However, it can be challenging for many living with SAD to get sunlight in the winter. One University of Toronto student explained the trouble that many apartment dwellers face.
“The worst year for me was… when I lived in residence at UTSC,” Vicky Nguyen said. “I had a tiny room with minimal light and a single horrible fluorescent light bulb.”
Dimly lit apartments can have many similarities with caves, and like a bear that hibernates during the winter months, SAD can have the same effect on people.
“One possibility is that… it’s an ancient form of hibernation, or energy conservation,” Levitan said of SAD. “One thought is that it is a disorder of evolution, meaning it was something that used to be adaptive and now is maladaptive.”
One of the ways Nguyen was able to cope with her seasonal depression was by moving to a different apartment, one with a large front window that gets the morning sun.
“I honestly cannot express how amazing it feels,” Nguyen said.
For those with SAD struggling to get sunlight, light therapy can be an alternative treatment, Levitan says — one that works just as well as conventional medicine. Light therapy involves exposure to certain types of ultraviolet light under the supervision of a doctor.
“People with SAD will respond equally as well to medication as they will to light. It’s usually a personal choice,” Levitan said. “We did a study where we found they were equal.”
Approximately three per cent of Canadians suffer from the most severe form of SAD, with an additional 10-15 per cent having a form of “sub-syndromal” type of SAD, according to Levitan.
These numbers do not include the countless Canadians who get the winter blues.
A common refrain among doctors and sufferers is that SAD is not something that can be solved by ignoring the problem.
“It’s important that you… get the proper treatment, whether that is light therapy or medication,” said Ted Sellers, patient care specialist at Lakeridge Health.
For those Torontonians who suspect they may suffer from SAD, getting a clinical diagnosis is the best way to help combat symptoms, rather than dismissing it as just the winter blues.
“The winter blues is not feeling as great as you usually would because of the weather. (It’s) a damper on your usual outlook on life, but you’re still the same old person,” Nguyen said. “Seasonal depression affects my entire outlook on life…. It affects my work habits, my relationships and my self-worth.”
Sellers believes a reluctance to report SAD keeps many from seeking the help they need. As a result, he says, the actual number of SAD sufferers could be much higher than the official statistics indicate.
“All forms of depression are underreported,” he said. “For every person that gets help, there are several that don’t.”