County residents twice as likely to have seasonal affective disorder

For some Whidbey residents, winter means headaches, irritability and low motivation.

Washington winters mean temperatures dropping, daylight depleting and increased precipitation. For some Whidbey residents, it means headaches and irritability and hobbies and motivation falling to the wayside.

Island County is the least sunny county in the conterminous states, according to NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory that measures solar radiation. For many residents like Randi Harris experiencing diagnosed depression and anxiety, this means exacerbated symptoms this time of year.

Twenty percent of people in Western Washington experience some form of seasonal depressive symptoms, said Dr. Jennifer Rough, a seasonal affective disorder specialist in Seattle, and seasonal affective disorder affects 10%. That’s at least double the national average.

“We have a one-two punch because we have the darkness of the winter day, and on top of the darkness we have cloud cover,” Rough said. “It was kind of odd in that it was only recently verified with research that having reduced sunlight due to cloud cover does compound the severity of depressive symptoms in people who have said so. That seems like a no-brainer and pretty common sensical, but now it is verified empirically.”

Oak Harbor native Amanda Hertlein-Martin first experienced seasonal affective disorder symptoms at age 15. Every year since has been worse, she said.

“Right now, I slowly am feeling like I’m coming back to life,” she said. “When it’s really bad, I feel like I’m completely hollow and doing absolutely anything makes me feel like I’m walking in sand or in water. Every muscle is heavy, and some days breathing is a struggle.”

Originally from Chicago, Harris found she would go through periods where it was difficult to be interested in hobbies or going to the gym, she said, instead staying inside all day and sleeping or playing video games. When she wasn’t taking care of herself, she was more prone to sickness.

It became obvious that daylight was a big factor of these symptoms when she chose to go to college in Florida and they disappeared. She went off her anti-depressant medication, she said.

Now in Oak Harbor, Harris has returned to treating her symptoms with medication, she said. Regular therapy has given her the confidence to open up about her problems for the first time. Through this process she has realized how strong her support system is that she didn’t see before.

“I started realizing I can tell people what’s going on in my head and even though my anxiety is going to tell me that they’re going to laugh at me or they’re going to be mad at me or they’re going to be like ‘that’s stupid,’ it’s not actually the case,” she said.

People with the same symptoms sometimes respond to treatments differently, Rough said.

Dr. Kelly Rohan, director of clinical training at the University of Vermont, is conducting a study funded by the National Institutes of Health looking at underlying biological and psychological vulnerabilities to seasonal affective disorder.

Subjects receive cognitive behavioral therapy in a group setting and at some point bright light therapy, but the order is randomized to see if some people respond to one treatment versus another.

“The hypothesis is of course yes, right?” Rough said. “Not every person is the same, and so although there are a collection of symptoms that are most common, everybody’s circadian system runs differently and at different lengths.”

Harris has been treating her symptoms for ten years and sometimes feels like nothing has helped.

“If I had my way, I would definitely move, because for me the sunlight, it feels like a natural cure,” she said.

For Hertlein-Martin, treatments have only worked short-term.

“There isn’t any good solution,” she said. “I’ve tried vitamin D and sun lamps and exercise and anything that anyone can think of, but nothing works long term and nothing seems to help past doing the activity.”

Antidepressant medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, bright light therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy have about a 60% effectiveness rate, Rough said. It takes trial and error in combination to see what works best for the individual.

“There are a lot of great options for people, which is really nice,” Rough said. “We’re just at that place where we’re trying to figure out how we can really match the specific patient with the specific treatment so we’ll get them better, faster.”

Harris advises people who are struggling with depressive symptoms to be strong and admit their feelings and be forthright in pursuing what works best for them. Don’t hold back.

“I struggled the most with recognizing what would be the best for me, even if it’s not the best for other people,” she said.

Rough hears from patients the most in January because that’s when enough days have built to feel fatigue, malaise and the drag of everyday life, she said. For those who are still experiencing symptoms, she encourages them to seek help.

“It’s not too late in the season to seek treatment and feel better for the next few months,” she said.