Op-Ed: ‘Tis the season

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Winter and the holiday season in general can be a great source of stress for some people—myself included—and the reality of those emotions cannot be ignored. But sometimes, when you hear about it so much, the cold facts concerning depression and suicide can be lost in static.

I grew up in Alaska, so hearing about winter depression was commonplace for me. It was drilled into my head during middle school and high school assemblies that Alaska has some of the highest rates of suicide in the United States. The winter months, long lasting and harsh on people physically, can also take a toll on mental health.

It’s important to note what is commonly known as “Seasonal Affective Disorder” is actually clinical depression. The seasonal pattern is noted as a factor for some individuals suffering from Major Depressive Disorder.

“Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as ‘cabin fever,’ occurs when people suffer depression because of the shortened days in the sub-arctic or the arctic and are sensitive to the cold temperatures as well,” Bonnie Brody, associate director for counseling at the student health and counseling center, said.

Psychology Today published an article by Suzanne Degges-White regarding depression in this time of the year. The article validated the scientific reasons for heightened depression in the winter months.

“The first [reason] involves the effect of shortening days on your circadian rhythm – when our sleep patterns are upset, feelings of irritability and depression can result,” Degges-White, chair of the Counseling, Adult and Higher Education department at Northern Illinois University, wrote. “The second is your serotonin level – decreased daylight results in decreased serotonin production when can lead to depression. Last is the effect of less daylight on melatonin production. Melatonin levels affect sleep cycles and our moods; when seasonal changes upset this hormone, the result can be feelings of depression, as well.”

The article also dispels the wide-held belief of suicide rates being higher in the winter; they are actually higher in the spring, contrary to popular mythos.

Brody described her general experience with seasonal depression, having worked in Alaska for several years.

“A lot of people in Fairbanks suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder,” she said. “It happens in Scandinavia and other northern countries as well; and people feel more apathetic, lack motivation, want to sleep a lot, can’t get out of bed, want a lot of carbs and sometimes it gets very very severe and people can feel suicidal and feel hopeless and despondent.”

Brody also gave some advice to help combat the difficult emotions that can sometimes arise in this time of year.

“Depending on how difficult their situation is, I ask [patients] initially to reach out to their friends, their support systems to talk to others,” Brody said. “Get a happy light… and use them for at least thirty minutes when they first get up. And contact a counselor here at student health and counseling.”

Any student with nine or more credits is entitled to five free counseling sessions per semester. Any student with six credits is also able to sign up for these sessions, provided they have paid the student health fee like students with nine or more credits, according to Brody.

Regarding suicide and the media, there also exists the threat of “contagion” suicides. In the past, I heard this phenomenon referred to as “clusters” or “copycat suicides”—as one death by suicide takes place, there appears to be a sort of contagious aspect to it and more deaths by suicide occur as result. This phenomenon can take effect when vulnerable people see press coverage pertaining to the event and the individuals and they relate to their reported suffering.

This “contagion” can be attributed to a few factors. Being close to the deceased is one factor, while media coverage is another, according to a 2013 workshop held to discuss violence. The workshop also concluded further study on the matter was necessary.

There is disagreement on the matter, however. When asked about copycat suicides, Brody commented her point of view.

“That phenomenon has been proved to be untrue,” she said. “There is not an increase in the number of suicides based on one person having taken their life. What happens is there’s a lot of grief on campus, a lot of people who are wanting counseling because of the impact of the death on them and the high degree of emotionality.”

The New York Times published an article by Margot Sanger-Katz addressing the subject, as well as media’s ascribed role.

“That aim has to be weighed against a journalistic duty to keep the public informed. And in the Internet era, a person who wants to know details of a suicide won’t have a hard time finding them,” Sanger-Katz wrote. “Most of the research on suicide contagion predates the rise of social media.”

The uncertainty within the psychological community and the media concerning this phenomenon can lead to disagreements in how to properly address communities in which suicide has taken place.

Is it my job, as part of a news team to write with sensitivity for those suffering from mental and emotional pain? Or is it the job of the newspaper to write for those who demand complete coverage of every event, no matter the effects of the details?

At the beginning of the school year, one of my psychology professors, Jason Whipple, told my classmates and me that he prefers to refer to the individuals who seek out his services as “patients.” The reason being the word “patient” in Latin translates to “one who suffers.”

Is it my job, as someone who aspires towards a career in the psychological field, to ease the suffering of others and make their progress towards health less difficult? Or is it my job to address the facts of suicide in my state and my nation with frankness and engage in public discussion regarding the issue?

Despite the uncertainty regarding “contagion,” suicide is considered a major health concern in this country. The Center for Disease Control has a page regarding suicide prevention, complete with facts and statistics regarding the issue. There are media guidelines for reporting on suicide, aimed towards being sensitive regarding the subject.

I don’t know if I have answers to the questions I’ve asked previously. I don’t have enough information at my disposal to make a decision on that subject.

What I do know is, personally, the winter months are the most difficult to face each passing year. It’s a time, stressful though it may be, when I have come to understand the importance of reaching out to those who care.

I know that our university offers counseling services. I know there are crisis hotlines that can be contacted by phone or online chat. I know Alaska has a specific crisis intervention hotline that can be contacted if their services are desired. There are friends, family and assistance available to those who seek it.

I know, always, that for people who are suffering, there are also people seeking to help.

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