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In our opinion: As ‘pandemic depression’ sets in, take time to evaluate your mental health

Keeping mental health in check is as important this winter as ever

SHARE In our opinion: As ‘pandemic depression’ sets in, take time to evaluate your mental health

In this Monday, June 1, 2020, file photo, a woman looks through a window at a near-empty terminal at an airport in Atlanta. Anxiety and depression are rising among Americans compared with before the pandemic, research suggests. Half of those surveyed in a study released on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, reported at least some signs of depression.

Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

As the weather turns cold and winter approaches, some experts predict the COVID-19 pandemic will worsen. Equally worrisome is a side effect that winter and COVID-19 have in common: loneliness and depression.

“Pandemic depression” — the label for mental health effects of months of physical distancing, isolation and uncertainty — could soon collide with “seasonal depression,” or SAD (seasonal affective disorder). Left unchecked, this public health hazard is as serious as the virus itself. 

Depression among Americans is already climbing. A June survey of U.S. adults published by the CDC reported 40% of those surveyed admitted struggles with mental health or substance abuse. A different study published by the American Medical Association found that symptoms of depression are three times higher during the COVID-19 pandemic than they were before. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported a jump from 32% of Americans in March with mental health struggles to 53% in July.

As days grow shorter, seasonal affective disorder — caused by a chemical imbalance sparked by a lack of sunlight — sets in for a growing number of Americans. And while mental health for teenagers has improved, not worsened, during the COVID-19 pandemic, SAD disproportionately affects young people, and this year may be no different.

Even for those who do not grapple with clinical depression, an unfortunate result of physical distancing — “chronic loneliness,” as experts have defined it — can be dangerous. So much so, researchers at Brigham Young University suggest, it may be as detrimental to human health as smoking a pack of cigarettes daily.

Regardless of one’s situation — suffering from diagnosed depression, experiencing depressive symptoms or simply missing the comfort of frequent, interpersonal interaction — keeping mental health in check is as important this winter as ever. 

Experts offer a number of ways to keep seasonal depression in check, but an oft-repeated suggestion is simple: make a plan. Since the shift from daylight saving time to standard time is often linked to mental health episodes, this week is the ideal time to prepare.

  • Create an “activity diet.” Staying active, exercising and getting outside are essential, even as temperatures drop. Researchers at Harvard suggest soaking up at least 30 minutes of sunlight daily. On top of the obvious physical benefits of exercise, staying physically active can boost self-esteem and provide a sense of accomplishment. “Make sure you create enough activities that would help you go outside the house, even if it is winter, and go out in the daylight as much as possible,” a psychologist recently told USA Today.
  • Stay connected. Isolating is often instinctive for those suffering with depression, The Washington Post reports. Social connections are important, though, whether in person or digitally. Staying connected through technology — and building a “support system” — can combat feelings of loneliness.
  • Reach out for help. Feeling lonely during the pandemic is common, even natural. But when symptoms of depression or SAD crop up, seeking help is the right thing to do. Utah’s new “Live On” campaign was launched just prior to the pandemic, and its timing was impeccable. Resources from medical professionals, religious leaders or state organizations are available for all.

As typical procedures to limit the spread of COVID-19 are emphasized, taking the time to evaluate and treat mental health is likewise essential.