Golden foliage is here, blues may follow

Alaskans have said goodbye to tank tops and perpetual sunlight and welcomed sweaters and cool autumn breezes. As temperatures drop, however, enthusiasm evoked by thoughts of candy corn and turkey can fade with the daylight.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that causes a person's mood level to fluctuate with changes in the amount of light during the season. Thousands of people in Anchorage are affected annually.

“It's common for [depression] symptoms to start manifesting themselves around this time of year,” nurse educator for University of Alaska Anchorage's Student Health Center Diane Bowland, RN, MPH said.

Various kinds of depression, including SAD, can sometimes be triggered by a stressful or traumatic event. If that event occurs between the ages of 15 and 20, depression is more likely to reoccur later in life.

“It's important to get professional help so you can nip [depression] in the bud before it gets too serious,” Bowland said.

In observance of National Depression Screen Day (NDSD) on Oct. 11, the Student Health Center will administer free depression screenings on Oct. 10 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. in the upper hallway of the Campus Center. There, students and faculty can fill out a self-test and talk to mental healthcare professionals to see if they may be affected by depression. There will be no charge for first-time counseling, but every session thereafter is $15 an hour.

Providence Health Systems psychiatric nurse practitioner Margo Borland says she would like to see mental health evaluations added to regular, annual health exam procedures.

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“Depression screenings get people to think about how they're feeling and look at those feelings objectively,” Borland said. “People need to be aware that depression is a medical problem that can be treated.”

There are many unsolved mysteries surrounding depression, but increased research of the brain's neurotransmitters during the past decade has allowed mental healthcare practitioners to offer more preventative care options to their patients. Borland says there are varying degrees to which a person can be depressed, and there are varying solutions to alleviate depression that do not involve taking medication.

“The physical act of smiling releases certain chemicals in the brain that help aid in the body's natural defenses,” Borland said.

Other non-medicinal options Borland suggests for relieving depression are to take a brief stroll outside for a few minutes a day to increase positive mood levels and to get as much light exposure as possible from light boxes and other full-spectrum light sources up to 30 minutes daily.

“Some people aren't sure how bad they have to feel in order to get help, so it's hard to draw the line. It's natural to feel depressed and upset, but if it goes on for months, then you should seek professional care,” Borland said.

The National Depression Screening Day national office identifies several symptoms people should look for to determine if they are depressed:

  • Persistent, sad, anxious or empty mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism, guilt, helplessness and worthlessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities ranging from schoolwork to sex
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Changes in appetite
  • Decreased energy, fatigue and feeling slowed down
  • Thoughts of death or suicide; suicide attempts
  • Increased restlessness and irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive disorders and chronic pain that don't respond to medical treatment