Darkness and disease

by Nick Gonzales

While many residents of the Four Corners revel in the winter season, it’s not rainbows and sugar plums for everyone. As the prospect of playing in the snow and celebrating holidays brings joy to some, the increased hours of darkness and cold instill dread in others.

Somewhere around 10 million Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (which is most common in the winter, though some people do feel it during the summer), and another 66 million might feel a mild form of it. For some, it manifests as a depression that springs up during the winter, and for others, it just makes their existing depression worse.

And when the season alone has the ability to push people into feelings of depression on a good year, imagine what people will be feeling as 2020 — the stocking full of coal of years — draws to a close. Some groups, such as service industry and healthcare workers, are going through an even larger ordeal because of the virus — and it can’t be good for their emotional health.

Bah humbug, indeed.

Seasonal Affective DisorderThe main culprit behind SAD appears to be the lack of sunlight, said Stephanie Allred, a psychologist and senior clinical director at Axis Health System — a nonprofit healthcare organization that provides services in Southwest Colorado. Data shows that there’s a higher rate of it as you go further north and the winter days get even shorter. (So if the lack of sun at this latitude is bringing you down, it probably isn’t the time to try making a go of it in Saskatchewan.)

The shift in the length of the day has the potential to throw off your daily rhythms in terms of your sleep-wake cycle, she said. It can also cause a vitamin D deficiency, as one way that we get it is through a chemical reaction that is dependent on exposure to solar radiation.

A lack of vitamin D can have a real effect on your health, resulting in bone diseases, such as osteoporosis, a softening of the bones. But the science is a bit less supported when it comes to whether or not that same deficiency has an effect on your emotional state. Trials in which people suffering from depression were given vitamin D supplements didn’t show much in the way of making anyone feel better. Then again, if you’re suffering from chronic musculoskeletal pain, it seems unlikely that you’re going to be as chipper as you would be otherwise.

What should you look out for if you think you’re falling into depression? Feelings of sadness, obviously, as well as a simple lack of feeling altogether.

[image:2]“A really big indicator is just loss of interest or motivation in things that we’re usually interested in and motivated in,” Allred said.

Changes in sleep schedule are also a sign of depression — either having trouble sleeping or sleeping longer than you normally would. And last but not least, thoughts of suicide are also common, and you should reach out to someone if you’re feeling them.

Enter COVID-19Two of the main ways people naturally stave off depression are by staying active and staying connected, Allred said. And that’s where the coronavirus has reared its ugly head to screw everything up.

Staying connected with people close to you is that much harder when you can’t visit with them in person or interact physically with them. (A hug or a hand on a shoulder goes a long way toward making someone feel better.) And seeing friends and family on a Zoom call is better than nothing, but it isn’t the same.

Similarly, it’s not as easy to stay active as it would be during any other winter. Heading to the gym is a bit more complicated when it can only operate at a fraction of its capacity. And while many winter activities — snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and the like — are still available, they’re not available to everyone, and it’s hard to engage in them on a daily basis.

Furthermore, the stress we’re all feeling as a result of the coronavirus can be a cause of depression in and of itself.

“Stress in a challenging life situation can absolutely contribute to depression,” Allred said. “When we’re worried about paying our bills, when we’re worried about being able to see our family again, then of course it can make us more vulnerable.”

Acutely affected groups

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected pretty much everybody, but some groups have it different than others.

Take people who work in the hospitality industry, for instance.

“Our jobs are constantly up in the air and it really sucks, to be honest,” said Regan Briggs, culinary director of the Ore House restaurant and chairwoman of In the Weeds, a support group for members of Durango’s service industry. “It sucks. It’s hard … we have always thrived on being able to provide hospitality for people, and now we’re being told that that’s being ripped away from us. We can’t do that anymore. And so it’s almost like pulling at our heartstrings. We can’t take care of people we love anymore.”

In the Weeds formed to create a support group for members of the restaurant and hospitality industry — a group that tends to be turned off about self-care and mental health, said director Blain Bailey. It helps for them to be able to connect with other people who share the same experiences.

[image:4]“Typically, we only trust people within our industry because it gets blocked off – nobody knows what we go through, having to work all the holidays – our busiest times of the year are the funnest times the year,” he said.

Before the pandemic, the organization, which formed in February 2019, had meetings on the first and third Mondays and Thursdays of every month. Ten to 15 people would attend those, Bailey said. It also organized physical activities, such as yoga and raft trips, as another means of supporting the mental health of its community. More recently, it created the Top S(h)elf Care program, an incentive program to promote healthy activities. When people attend meetings or a yoga group or turn down a shift drink, they get a punch on a card. When the card is completed, that person gets a day pass to Purgatory Ski Resort, a 60-minute float at Salt 360 Float studio, a 30-minute massage at Elevation Massage Therapy, or a gift card.

Unfortunately, the incentive program might be an unnecessary move, as the number of people attending In the Weeds’ virtual meetings has dwindled to only a handful of people. In addition to Zoom meeting fatigue, the industry is just too chaotic at the moment. People are so stressed out, they can’t make it to the meetings to de-stress.

And the fact that it’s winter probably isn’t helping, at least not locally. Bailey said Durango’s busiest season — the one in which people in the service industry can earn some decent cash — is the summer. Outside of particularly busy days like Black Friday, the winter season tends to be slow.

And that financial depression probably doesn’t help combat emotional depressions — especially during the pandemic.

Nevertheless, In the Weeds is rolling out a series of resilience training in January in collaboration with Celebrating Healthy Communities and Resilient Colorado. The first one will be about dealing with burnout during a pandemic.

“My parents always said, ‘Well, people have got to eat,’ and I fell in love with the industry. And I will never fall out of love with it. But I thought this industry was unbreakable, and this is proving otherwise,” Briggs said.

With the troubles facing service industry workers, one can only imagine what healthcare workers, who face people suffering from the coronavirus itself on a daily basis, are going through. DGO was unable to confirm if there is a local peer-to-peer support group like In the Weeds for healthcare workers. If there isn’t, perhaps there should be.

What’s to be done?When it comes to fighting off your own gloom in the winter months, Allred recommends vitamin D supplements and light therapy. You can purchase light boxes that mimic the full spectrum of light — something your run-of-the-mill lamp won’t do. Letting them shine on you early in the morning apparently releases serotonin in your brain, creating feelings of well-being and stabilizing your mood. (Interestingly, lightbox therapy is also used on people suffering from dementia — not because they’re affected by seasonal changes, but because they sometimes lose track of the day and night.)

Naturally, the seriously depressed should seek out medical help, in the form of therapy and/or doctors who might prescribe anti-depressants.


As for what you can do for others, Bailey, who is also a sous-chef at Carver Brewing Co. recommends reaching out to people and trying to brighten their day.

“Whenever I was in the kitchen, on the line, and we’d be going through dinner rush or lunch rush or breakfast rush and a guest would come up to the window and say, ‘Hey, guys, the food was amazing. Thank you so much.’ It wasn’t necessarily a tip or anything, but they would just say that and I would immediately see an influx of positivity throughout the line … and our energy would be both boosted,” he said. “It felt great, and you can do this for your servers, for your bartenders, the bussers, the dish guy, whoever, just that genuine ‘thank you’ was awesome.”

If you’re one of the ones stressed out and feeling like you need to talk to someone, he encourages you to reach out to whoever seems like the right person to talk to. They’re probably going through the same thing as you, he said.

When it comes to the service industry, ordering take out to support restaurants even when you can’t dine in also helps, he said, as does tipping well.

Briggs would like people to take it one step further and call their congresspeople and ask them to support bills such as the federal Restaurants Act.

“Eleven million employees work in the restaurant industry and there’s another 5 million that are affected by the restaurant industry up and down the food supply chain,” she said. “I will definitely fly eventually, but airlines got how much of a bill to support their employees? Restaurants have not received a single dime, and we employ three times as many employees. It’s is affecting everyone. Small farms are closing; it’s not just restaurant employees, it’s small farms and small businesses. But that’s something — a very small piece of your time — that can be done to effect something greater down the line.”

If you see other groups having a rough go of it — restaurant workers, nurses, teachers, you name it — think about what you can do for them, too. It’s going to be a long winter, and it doesn’t appear that the coronavirus is going away anytime soon.


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