Holiday Blues or More?
Shining a Light on Mental Illness
Photo by Dragana Gordic
Katie looks out the window as snow frosts the yard. “Another day in paradise” she mutters. Her neighbor’s white lights twinkle, and a huge red bow is a reminder of the approaching holidays. While others gear up for the season, Katie feels “blah.” She’s hungry all the time and has zero energy, she sleeps a lot, but always feels tired.
For some, the holiday season is a time of festivity and joy. For people like Katie, the holidays bring with them a mixed bag of emotions. Katie suffers from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), and she’s not alone. According to Fairfield Psychiatrist Dr. Melissa Welby, about five percent of the U.S. population experiences SAD with symptoms that last as much as 40 percent of the year. Women experience SAD four times as often as men, and it is commonly seen in women of childbearing age.
Another closely-related issue many face this time of year is the “holiday blues.” Many people suffer in silence during the holidays because they don’t want to take away from everyone else’s good time. Though the maladies are different, the outcome is the same; the holiday kicks off a season of sadness and for some, depression. “There are so many expectations around the holidays that end up making things more challenging for many. If people are feeling anxious or depressed at this time, the holidays can serve to make them feel more isolated and alone. It can stop them from reaching out to others for support because they don’t want to ‘bring down’ the crowd. For some, the holidays provide them structure and a focus which then disappears as soon as the season is over,” Dr. Welby explains.
“SAD is different than the holiday blues, although they can overlap. Those who have depression can also have seasonal worsening of the depression. Sometimes we have to anticipate this and add on additional treatment during the months they struggle,“ Dr.Welby says.
Mental illnesses are common in the United States. Nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness. Yet many are afraid to talk about it. One Fairfielder who wants to break the stigma of mental illness is Thomas Smalley. He is a 21-year-old college junior who suffers from OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). A psychology major, Thomas has created two YouTube documentaries in his “Struggle into Strength” series to help others learn from his journey.
“Several clinical professionals told me I would never be able to go away to college,” he says with a smile. He currently serves as the basketball team manager at Siena College in Loudonville, New York.
Smalley struggled with anxiety and depression from an early age and by the time he was a freshman in high school, he had trouble making it onto the basketball court. He would get stuck. Obsessively repeating a task such as tying his shoes or switching a light on and off. His compulsions were fueled by an irrational thought that he needed to perform a certain task a specific number of times in order to protect his family. “About 94 percent of people have intrusive thoughts,” Smalley explains, “it becomes OCD when it takes over your daily life.”
“The thoughts are irrational, and people might say that they are ridiculous. But it all makes perfect sense to me. I have a lack of serotonin in my brain, it’s a chemical imbalance. I think mental illness is being talked about, but people don’t see it as a part of a person’s overall physical health,” he says.
Through Exposure Response Therapy, Thomas continues to work on training his mind to resist his compulsions. “Facing my fears, combined with medications is the best treatment for me.” He works with a private therapist through teletherapy while he’s away at school. Thomas also has a strong support system. “My family is awesome, but you can only understand so much about what is going on in someone’s mind with OCD.“ His best support system comes from the OCD community. He now travels to speak at OCD conferences all over the country. He recently won a Stigma Buster Award from the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) for his efforts to help others understand and accept OCD and other mental illnesses.
“When you are feeling stuck and struggling to get on track, it can be helpful to consult with a psychiatrist,” Dr. Welby says. “Whether it seems to be holiday-related or a year-round feeling, there are others who share your pain, and help is out there.”
NAMI Connecticut offers confidential support groups and trainings at no cost. For a complete list of groups go to namict.org or call: 800-215-3021
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7. Call 800-273-8255 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Dr. Melissa Welby is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist in private practice in Fairfield and Milford. Check out her blog at drmelissawelby.com