SPECIAL REPORT: Living with seasonal affective disorder

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In part two of our five-part special report series, KNWA's Clarissa Bustamante opens up the conversation about suicide during the winter months and the reality of living with seasonal affective disorder.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA) — For some people, the holiday season brings joy.

For others, it can be a source of grief or even hopelessness.

“At first I thought I was crazy, but my doctor later told me it’s a very common thing,” said Tom Zhang, who was diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder.

Feeling blue during the holidays isn’t something new to Zhang.

“Sometimes it feels lonely because you go to the mall and you know there are families, and you know me being single, kind of brings that out,” he said.

A few years ago, Zhang was diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder.

He joins the five percent of the country whose biological internal clock shifts with the seasons, causing mood changes and even thoughts of suicide.

But despite popular belief, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reports the suicide rate is actually the lowest in December.

Clinical Psychologist Dr. Margaret Rutherford said there are three main causes of suicidality:

  • Hopelessness
  • Impulsivity
  • Feeling like people would be better off without you

Dr. Rutherford said it’s harder to feel these things when Christmas time hits.

“People can’t isolate as easily when it’s the holidays, there’s more pressure to be with family or friends,” she said. “It’s a little more widely recognized that it’s okay to ‘Whew, the holidays are crazy’ whereas you might not think in February that that’s something that you need to talk about.”

But, a chemical imbalance in your brain can still make you sad—feeling like Zhang.

Dr. Rutherford said, “If you had a loss this year, or something you’re grieving and you’re approaching the holidays again, it’s very difficult to think about either the person that was there last year, maybe they got sick, or maybe you were helping them or treating them and now they’re gone. So, even approaching the holidays can be difficult.”

To avoid getting overwhelmed with anxiety or depression around Christmas, she said we need to take a step back and prioritize.

“A lot of times we have rituals that we want to follow and they’re meaningful to us…you just can’t do everything at once,” she said. “Is it really important whether you make your grandmother’s rolls or not? Probably not. You’d like to, and it evokes memories of your grandma but you know Sister Schubert makes some pretty good rolls.”

Zhang’s disorder can feel like a rollercoster sometimes.

“It got bad, it got better, and then it got bad,” he said. “It’s kinda like a periodic thing.”

But, both he and Dr. Rutherford said it helps to realize your condition isn’t a part of who you are as a person.

“It’s not so much me but something external,” said Zhang.

If anxiety is part of what you’re battling, Dr. Rutherford suggests giving it a name.

She said, “In some ways, it helps you detach. Not like I’m getting anxious, but Bob’s here again.”

When the depression creeps in, and you feel hopeless or even suicidal, she said there’s a community of mental health professionals here in Northwest Arkansas willing to help you get back on your feet.

Dr. Rutherford said one of the ways to deflect seasonal sadness is purchasing a lightbox, which carries UV rays that you would get naturally in the spring or summer.

If you need help now, you can call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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