For years, Black Twitter has affectionately named the gloomy, drawn-out winter months as “cuffing season,” made perfect by dropping temperatures and “cuddle weather.” It’s when you hole in with your chosen partner or community, binge-watch television, and, if you’re lucky, crank up the heater while darkness takes over outside. But the winter months are not always Hallmark Channel-worthy.
At the start of winter, as our bodies adjust to less sunlight and colder temperatures, our serotonin levels often dip, leading to seasonal depression, used interchangeably with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Symptoms of SAD include fatigue, irritability, low energy, problems concentrating, increased need for sleep, change in appetite, drastic weight change, and feeling like “hibernating.”
While SAD affects more than 10 million Americans annually, the disorder affects women four times more than men. More than 500,000 Americans are hospitalized every year because of the condition.
Researchers believe SAD may have disparate effects on Black Americans because of how depression generally presents itself in Black communities, and because vitamin D deficiency is most prevalent among Black people in America. In the United States, Black and Latino people are more likely to be at risk for depression than white people, according to a 2018 study that included more than 12,000 participants from 2005 to 2012. The study attempted to account for historical drivers of depression in Black communities, including chronic stress due to racism and economic inequality. Even when considered, Black participants were still more likely to be at risk for depression, the study concluded.
Generally, seasonal depression in the United States has been linked to long, drawn-out winters, but it can linger all-year round, experts contend. While winter SAD tends to look like oversleeping, summer SAD often shows up with insomnia and lowered appetite. During the summer, an added challenge presents itself for folks experiencing SAD: the social expectation of enjoying the sunshine and outdoor events. In the winter, the seemingly nonstop avalanche of holidays also adds a specific kind of pressure for communal joy.
The Mayo Clinic asserts that seasonal depression “begins and ends at about the same times every year,” but with climate change disrupting the standard timeframes for our weather cycles, the expected SAD period may become more irregular. In the Northwest and Mountain West, winter is becoming more intense, while in the Midwest, South, and Northeast, the concentration of cold weather months is experiencing a downward shift. And across all 50 states, the summer heatwave season has increased since 1961.
The world’s largest climate collective, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has repeatedly acknowledged how climate change, environmental injustices, and severe weather events are linked to stress, trauma, grief, anxiety, and suicide. Erratic seasons don’t bode well for SAD, either, especially in Black communities, which are most at-risk for flooding and environmental pollution.
However, there are proven ways to mitigate SAD’s impact on Black communities. A 2015 study found that when offered light therapy, a treatment involving exposure to an artificial light source that mimics outdoor light, Black participants were less likely to continue experiencing negative health effects from seasonal depression than white participants.
With the holiday season quickly approaching and the daunting reality of climate change creeping into everyone’s daily life, Capital B sat down with Mychelle Williams, a Washington, D.C.-based therapist who focuses on Black mental health, to talk about SAD, its impact on Black life, and the various ways to cope, such as light therapy.
Capital B: How did you get into the mental health space in the first place?
Mychelle Williams: I’m a Philadelphia native who went to Xavier University of Louisiana, an HBCU in New Orleans, to study psychology, and during the research that I was doing, I got interested in the practical application of neuroscience research. After undergrad, I went to the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, where I specialized in childhood and adolescent trauma. I chose that specialty because, in my internships, I realized many adults I worked with had experienced something traumatizing as children or teens. I thought it would be appropriate to go right to the source to see if some type of early intervention could be done.
Since then, I’ve worked in prisons and I’ve worked at elementary, middle, and high schools. I’ve also done some diversity work and advocacy at the graduate level. Recently, I have connected with somatic therapies that help people become more connected to their bodies, help them move trauma through their bodies, and help them reprocess stressful experiences.
Why do you think it’s so important to have folks in this space who specialize and specifically work with folks who hold similar marginalized identities? So for you, that’s focusing on Black folks and queer folks in this space.
It is important because we, as Black people, when I say we, I mean Black people and Black queer people: We don’t have spaces dedicated to us in general. We don’t have a lot of bookstores, clubs, restaurants, neighborhoods, resources that are specifically created with us in mind. We’re expected to get in where we fit in, and we don’t fit into a lot of places. So it’s really important to have spaces, especially therapeutic ones that aren’t just therapy but things that can be healing and restorative that center and serve people with marginalized identities so that the experience doesn’t further harm us. This is why I conduct therapy with Black, queer, and trans people in mind.
When we’re talking about the causes of seasonal depression and the specific ways it shows up for Black folks in the United States, are there any common triggers?
Typically, the conversation around seasonal depression comes up around the winter months, but it’s not just about winter. It comes up around the winter because there are fewer hours of daylight and Black people are highly likely to be vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D deficiency affects our mood, energy, and ability to concentrate and focus, among other physical health things. And so the less light we have access to, the more likely we’re going to find ourselves feeling stressed, feeling less energy, and feeling less motivated. Many of us have circadian rhythms, so when it gets dark, it makes us sleepy and want to wind down. It symbolizes the end of the day, but the end of the day, sometimes looks like 4 p.m. or 5 p.m., depending on what region you’re in. So it does take a toll, not even to be able to use sunlight to gauge time.
It impacts people in all contexts, though. People living in warmer climates and who have access to the sun can still be affected by seasonal depression, especially if you’re on the East Coast. They have to navigate daylight saving time and fewer sun hours a day, which lowers the opportunity for socializing and impacts people’s motivation to engage in whatever type of enriching or extracurricular activities they were doing outside the house. Because of the global pandemic, many people lost access to being in community and pursuing certain hobbies because they were trying to protect their health. And so, today especially, people struggle to be in communities.
When we look at depression more generally in the United States, studies show that Black folks, for numerous reasons — chronic stress, racism, and poverty — are more likely to be at risk for depression. Does that show up in your work for seasonal depression?
Absolutely. I recently saw this meme, it’s like a whole bunch of different Spider-Mans pointing at each other, but really it is all the different types of depression pointing at each other. We are living in depressing circumstances; the state of our world is depressing. So we have the depression that we experience, and then we have depression as a symptom. Depressing circumstances can be the crushing weight of capitalism, a global pandemic, and multiple members of our community being killed and broadcast all over the news. All happening on top of my existing low-level depression, such as seasonal depression or work burnout.
It’s never just one thing. We’re talking about navigating things happening in our personal lives, our families, and our greater family, the community. We’re holding that type of stress and concern, and then in a season where it is harder to be happy because we don’t even have enough sunlight.
Do you have any major tips on how to address the ways that seasonal depression might show up in our lives?
- Add Vitamin D supplements and some herbal supplements to your regimen. These will help your body produce and absorb vitamin D. Other supplements include lion’s mane, ashwagandha, and magnesium.
- Before the season that triggers you begins, you should start a few weeks before the season starts to get into a groove. Build a routine about the things you care about, the community you care about — in-person and digitally — and make sure that we are active and intentional and leaning into those communities.
- There are certain types of light therapies that are really helpful for people who are experiencing seasonal depression symptoms because of the lack of sunlight. There are warm lamps that we can put in our homes to help our brains adjust to this darkness and give us a little bit of reprieve from the darkness.
- The seasons are changing, and just like the trees lose their leaves, we also settle during the colder months. So it’s going to be really helpful for us to find a way to move our bodies in ways that may be different from how we move our bodies in other seasons. But we need to help move around some of that energy that feels low, heavy, or stuck.
- You’re not going to be able to show up and produce the same way you did in previous months of the year. Nature doesn’t even do that, so it is also helpful for us to manage our expectations. I think that we don’t anticipate those changes for ourselves, and capitalism has made us feel guilty for having a certain level of energy that’s causing us not to produce as much. We are taught that it’s like a deficit for us, but it’s actually not a deficit for us.