Wednesday, November 8, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Good morning, MindSite News readers! Today we explore the phenomenon of seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD – and what steps you can take to protect yourself if you have it. Also in this issue: Survivors of the Maui wildfires are struggling with trauma and thoughts of suicide, the Senate Finance Committee is chopping away parts of its mental health proposal, exploring your gender identity is valuable, and more.

Navigating seasonal depression

Depression is relatively common, affecting 1 in 5 people, but remains largely misunderstood. More than feeling a little blah for a few days, people with clinical depression report feeling “empty, numb, or hollow.” Clinical psychologist Natalie Christine Dattilo told USA Today, “Feelings of deep sadness or despair can come in waves – sometimes unexpectedly – and envelope them.” Depressive episodes may even prompt feelings of disconnection so great that people find it hard to complete basic daily activities. 

With the end of Daylight Saving Time, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or seasonal depression, is on the rise. (Let’s face it: For those of us used to taking the dog on his last walk in the daylight, it comes as a shock each year to find it getting dark around 5 pm). Experts believe SAD is caused by decreased exposure to sunlight, which reduces our active levels of serotonin. Combine that with the fact that our brains produce more melatonin – the body’s natural sleep-inducing compound – when it’s dark, and we feel the need to rest more, too.

While sleeping more may seem counterintuitive, it’s actually one way to combat SAD, sleep doctor Rebecca Robbins told the Boston Globe . Getting up with the winter sun is critical, too. The light helps “turn on the awake part of our circadian rhythm,” she said. Other evidence-based ways to manage SAD include getting outside as much as possible before and during work, eating healthy meals, exercising regularly and spending time with others. “When people start to isolate themselves, which happens more in the winter, [they] can start to feel more down and lonely,” psychiatrist Michelle DiBlasi said. “The biggest key is staying socially connected and getting a full night’s rest.”

Three months after devastating wildfires in Maui, survivors struggle with trauma and despair

Big Beach in Maui, Hawaii (credit: Shutterstock)

Residents of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui tell NBC News the community has been in anguish since wildfires ran through their West Maui community, killing at least 97 people, turning their homes to ash and erasing generations of history. Many survivors show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), struggling to eat and sleep in addition to recurring nightmares and flashbacks. One grandmother and granddaughter pair who jumped into the ocean to avoid the flames still wake up tasting seawater. Survivors describe a profound shared sadness: “kaumaha.”

“I am noticing that there is an uptick in very dark thoughts, suicidal thoughts, passivity in terms of ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just don’t even know if I want to be here,’” said trauma therapist and social worker Debbie Scott. “Losing pets and losing every belonging, losing history, losing tradition, has left souls pretty empty.” The fires wiped out what residents were able to build on their own, reopening wounds.  Experts anticipate that mental health needs will only rise as more residents recover what they need for basic survival. 

Suicide rates are known to climb after natural disasters like the Maui wildfires, but they were on the rise among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders even before the Maui catastrophe, according to the CDC. The added devastation of losing loved ones as well as cultural and historical artifacts can’t be understated. “The loss of the land, because we are tied to it so intricately, has been the element that has caused the deepest devastation,” said Kalena Lanuza, a Native Hawaiian and mental health nurse practitioner based in California. She still sees clients in Hawaii via telehealth. Lahaina was the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, she said, and losing the physical evidence of that history arouses the generational trauma passed down from their ancestors who saw the U.S. military overthrow the nation’s monarchy. 

Beyond that, the fires brought a wave of financial troubles for Lahaina residents. The contamination of waters and land make farming and fishing – residents’ primary sources of income – untenable for many. “It’s creating another layer of social issues on top of the already existing trauma of the fires,” Scott said. There also aren’t enough mental health providers available to help people who want and need support, she added. Residents also long to speak to Native Hawaiian therapists, or at least someone who understands the history of the region. With Native Hawaiian therapists on the island practically nonexistent, residents have mostly rejected therapy in favor of other methods of managing grief and despair.

They play music, plant what they can, and call out Indigenous chants and prayers. It’s the best way to focus on the future, said survivor Denley Ompoy. “Sometimes our anger puts us in the wrong place, but that’s like being angry with the wind,” he said. “We’ll see our loved ones again, even though they left us in such a tragic way.”

The old bank building and the previous home to the Peter Lik gallery sits gutted after the devastating fires that burned and destroyed Lahaina, Maui. Photo: Shutterstock

(For a look at what some residents of Maui were struggling with before the wildfires, see the Center for Care Innovation’s mini-documentary “Ohana Means Family”: Bringing Telehealth to the Forgotten Residents of Maui.)

In other news…

The Senate Finance Committee is making substantial cuts to its mental health proposal, including dropping measures “that include proposals aimed at boosting the supply of therapists, counselors and other mental health providers as well as measures to help prevent people who’ve left prison from overdosing,” reported Axios. “Cost was the biggest issue,” said a Senate aide who remained anonymous. “The package had to scale back a number of provisions to keep everything budget-neutral/net saver.”

Exploring your gender identity is good, even if you’re neither nonbinary or trans: That’s the expert opinion of Eli Lawliet, The Gender Doula, a scholar on transgender people and healthcare through the lenses of public health, policy, law, sociology and history. Lawliet wrote an email to the LA Times’ Group Therapy newsletter, and said: “I believe that there are profound implications for gender exploration as a component in mental healthcare, because in our modern culture, most people have a disrupted relationship to gender. We see this in the differences between lifespan for cisgender men and cisgender women, for example, with cisgender men more likely to die by suicide, accident or preventable illness. We also see this in the way that health, wellness and beauty standards impact both men and women, but women quite a lot more so. I believe that this is one area where cisgender people could learn so much from trans people, and from how we engage with and disrupt gender in the overculture,” he said. The newsletter’s writer, Laura Newberry, was so intrigued she did a follow-up interview with Lawliet

Thinking of marriage in a wholly secular way: When Americans think of marriage, it’s often from a Judeo-Christian perspective. But clinical psychologist Enrico Gnaulati has written a book, Flourishing Love: A Secular Guide to Lasting Intimate Relationships, that’s rooted in social science and philosophy –and suggests there are other foundations on which to build a marriage besides moral-religious duty. He discusses the book and his discoveries in this 20-minute episode of YES Presents: Rising Up With Sonali.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...