By Dr. KaNisha L. Hall, M.D.
Special to the AFRO
How could this be? In this new normal of pandemic panic, political anxiety and socially distant seclusion, I find it hard to keep track of exactly what I am feeling on a day to day basis. Did I mention, I have PTSD from witnessing the public lynching of George Floyd, senseless murder of Breonna Taylor and crumbling moral compass of America. I have to take a moment to pause and breathe. Then, I digress. So, what exactly is SAD? SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, is a fall/winter depression that many silently suffer with annually. This colder, darker time of year deprives the human body of much needed sunlight, decreases essential vitamin D levels and ultimately makes a person feel sluggish, sorrowful and just downright sad.
I can personally confess, I was years into my career as a physician before I realized that my fall seasonal slump and winter hibernation were more than just a disdain for colder weather. Some might normally describe me as a social butterfly, but during these times I would go into hiding, coping with social anxiety. The people, places and things that would normally bring me joy only caused distress or indifference. I would strangely overeat or eat nothing. I never had thoughts of harming myself, but I was impassive to thoughts of living. I didn’t want to get out of bed most days and getting motivated seemed impossible. I was depressed to the point of physical manifestations. My body felt painfully stiff. In the darkest days, I felt emotionally and physically wounded.
Right now, this country is hurting. Our countrysides have been ravaged by natural disasters, hurricanes, forest fires and even earthquakes. Our hearts and minds are finding it hard to heal from repeated killing of innocent Black people and still no justice, no peace. Also, our bodies grow weary with marching and still need armor, personal protective equipment (PPE), to fight a microscopic enemy that is attacking our health, homes and sanity. We are grieving the lives we have lost. We are not sure how to recover from the vanishing of our pre-pandemic existence. Unemployment and isolation are crippling our economy and psyche. Oppression, recession and depression are having a family reunion, and we all have been invited to the cookout.
Honestly, we really can’t afford to be SAD. Depression already costs the United States $210 billion per year. At least 40 percent of that cost is not actually related to treating depression itself, but rather related illnesses and the reduced productivity from those suffering from the condition. So, Let’s do the math. Add our current state of affairs to the gumbo pot of seasonal gloom, and it is not hard to see that we have a recipe for disaster in our melting pot of a country. I really hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I would be remiss if I failed to mention the incoming onslaught of suicide attempts to be seen over the holidays. If you were not feeling sad before looking at this masterpiece of impending doom, please accept my apologies. However, I am not done. Awareness and acceptance will lead us nowhere without answers.
Simply put, It would appear this country is headed toward a mental health crisis in the midst of a public health crisis. The question is, what can be done? I am not looking for executive orders, or task forces to convene. I would love to see a collective effort to address mental health as a public health priority. Still, without a decree from the current or newly elected administration, there are steps that we, as a people, can take in order to prepare for this tsunami of SAD.
Past and ongoing research into Seasonal Affective Disorder has helped find effective treatment options. As mentioned previously, winter months lack sunlight. The simple fix is to turn on the sunlight. Without celestial powers, one has to settle for a lamp. There are ultra bright light fixtures, SAD lamps, that shine roughly twenty times (20x) brighter than normal indoor bulbs. Light therapy has been shown to be extremely effective treatment. Other behavior modifications such as regular low impact exercise, meal planning and self care activities are helpful. Adding accountability can also increase chances of success. A general goal to minimize and alleviate stress will help combat poor physical and mental health.
Some people are more than just SAD. Major depressive disorders are on the rise and have been, even before the onset of the pandemic. COVID19 has shined a proverbial light on these healthcare disparities and smoldering issues on the verge of combustion. Mental health disorders plague our country and are a menace on our minority communities. Higher prevalence in people of color, coupled with daunting limited access to care explains our rising rates of suicide among children, young adults and older Americans. Mental Health DIsorders are the leading cause of disability. This pandemic gut punch makes it worse because the rising case reports do not depict a near end in site for related illness or depression.
What can we do? While we wait for a vaccine and depoliticizing of public health policies meant to protect us all, I recommend having a few conversations. Start by talking to yourself. Identify the stressors in your life and serve them an eviction notice. Next, have conversations with your loved ones about how they are coping in the madness. Lastly, remember there are professionals. There are therapists, counselors and clergymen to provide much needed care. There are crisis hotlines available around the clock so no one has to feel alone.
Personally, I believe there is power in the pen. Journaling helps me keep track of my mood, alleviate stressors and take inventory of my reasons to push through these tough times. I have also been finding ways to stay connected in this new era social distance. Social media, video chats\ and friendly drive bys have helped lessen the isolation of quarantine. I am also not afraid to admit, I see a therapist regularly. These are truly some crazy times, but we have what it takes to come out on the other side of SAD with a smile. We have to do it together.
Dr. KaNisha Hall received a Doctorate of Medicine (M.D.) from Howard University. She later completed her residency at Louisiana State University and is a board certified anesthesiologist. Also, Dr. KaNisha Hall currently serves as the Chief Medical Correspondent for Kluster Radio Media Group. Dr. KaNisha practices perioperative medicine, telemedicine and addiction counseling in multiple states including Texas, Georgia, Louisiana and Michigan.