Each March in recent years, a TV commercial touting the return of spring has featured a neighbor who wanders into a backyard barbeque party in his pajamas and winter coat, dazed and confused as if he’d been hibernating. It was just winter, a friend tells him. 

In a real-life setting, his winter funk might have been SAD, and the man literally needs to see the light of day.

Thousands of area people — an estimated 10 percent of the population, here and across the northern hemisphere – feel the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder. They battle symptoms of depression from November to March that range from mild to dangerously severe. SAD symptoms range from lethargy and low concentration to thoughts of suicide.

The cause of SAD is simple, yet, more than 20 years after it was diagnosed as a specific disorder, still a matter of theories.

“It’s how your biology responds to lack of sunlight,” said Dr. Kyla Noghohossian, a staff psychiatrist at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Peoria. “Most likely genetic factors” are involved, making SAD often an inherited trait, she said.

The malady, a form of clinical depression, sends at least hundreds of Tazewell and Peoria County residents needing help during winter months to psychiatrists and behavioral health care therapists, typically with referrals from their medical doctors.

The area’s two primary health care providers, UnityPoint Health–Methodist and OSF HealthCare, both based in Peoria, treat more than 320 SAD patients each winter, medical officials there said.

Those afflicted often sleep more, eat more and exercise less, struggle with feelings of guilt, lose interest in things they enjoy and display attitudes that cause friction at work and home. 

In rough winters like the one central Illinois currently endures, they go outside less often. That only makes their symptoms worse, Noghohossian said.

Many chalk their symptoms up to the so-called winter blues. “They just think it’s natural,” Noghohossian said.

Much of the 200-plus patients she and her fellow 14 psychiatrists treat at UnityPoint Health–Methodist suffer from other, more serious types of behavior disorder as well as SAD. That malady, however, is present in 15 percent of people afflicted with depression, she said.

Sonny Pickowitz, OSF’s primary care behavioral health services coordinator, said she and her staff of 10 therapists see more than 120 patients from late fall to early spring who typically are referred by their doctors.

In that sense, “We’re kind of the front line” of SAD care providers, Pickowitz said. “They’ll tell their doctor they’re just not feeling right,” and if the doctors suspect SAD, “they’ll refer them to us.” 

Both specialists said the most successful form of treatment for SAD patients is the simplest: More light, specifically through the use of light therapy lamps that can be purchased without prescription.

“Eighty to 90 percent of those who seek treatment find relief” with a programmed use of the lamps, Pickowitz said. Noghohossian said about 70 percent of the often more complex SAD cases her department deals with show marked improvement with the therapy.

Pickowitz and her staff work with the patients to “meet them where they are” in their daily lives. “We encourage them to do the things they’ve always liked, take time out for themselves,” even at work, “and find ways to relax.”

Woven into that “cognitive restructuring” is time in front of the lamp, on a regular schedule that might coincide with periods in the day when their SAD symptoms feel strongest, Pickowitz said.

Because SAD sufferers often don’t realize the physiological malady causes the depression and other symptoms they endure, the two specialists said many of the patients they see are referred by concerned family members.

The Tazewell County Health Department offers free courses “to teach people mental health first-aid,” or how people can detect mental health disorders in those close to them and guide them toward treatment, said department spokeswoman Sara Sparkman.

“We have adult and youth sessions to teach people what to look for” in suspected disorders such as SAD, she said.

The department’s next sessions will be held Jan. 31 for adults and on Feb. 22 for teens, both at the department’s offices in Tremont. For more information, call the department at 925-5511.

Follow Michael Smothers at Twitter.com/msmotherspekin

A related story on SAD can be found by clicking here.


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