Skip to main content

Military Health System

Why Less Sunlight in the Wintertime Can Put You at Risk of Depression

Image of Airman in winter gear carry deployment gear at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, Alaska in preparation for Operation Polar Force exercise. U.S. Airmen carry their deployment gear as they arrive at the Joint Mobility Complex for exercise Polar Force at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Nov. 16, 2021. Polar Force is a two-week exercise designed to test JBER’s mission readiness while strengthening and developing the skills service members require when facing adverse situations.

Recommended Content:

Psychological Fitness

During winter months at Fort Wainwright in Alaska, the sun comes up around 10 a.m. and sets a little bit before 3 p.m. Along with the frigid weather, the extended darkness creates an increased risk of depression and other mental health problems.

That’s why at installations like Fort Wainwright, military officials are acutely aware of the risks of Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, which is the medical term for a seasonally triggered change in behavior that can affect anyone but especially at higher latitudes where the days are shortest.

SAD can be hard to recognize because its onset is as slow as the changing seasons.

“One of the most challenging things about identifying Seasonal Affective Disorder is that the onset can be very subtle,” said Army Capt. Julie Dederer, a psychologist at Bassett Army Community Hospital at Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks, Alaska, said.

“This can cause delays in patients identifying that something is wrong, and in accurately identifying it for treatment once the patient does seek treatment for it.”

The problem becomes most acute around this time of year, near the winter solstice, or the northern hemisphere’s shortest day of the year, which usually falls on Dec. 21.

Fort Bremerton, Alaska winter landscape with low sun
Naval Hospital Bremerton can help beneficiaries recognize and cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder - a mood disorder triggered by a change in seasonal weather patterns such as shorter days, gray skies, and rain. SAD symptoms can include a persistent low mood, loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities, and bring irritable. NHB recommends being active, getting outside, and eating healthily.

Anyone can be affected each year regardless of latitude.

“SAD can occur regardless of geographic location, especially if people have a history of mental health issues or depression,” said U.S. Public Health Service Officer Lt. Hana Kim, the assistant department head of the outpatient behavioral health department at the Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command in Jacksonville, Florida.

There is a relatively high rate of reoccurrence “in that individuals who experience an episode of SAD are significantly more likely to experience another episode the next year,” Dederer said. The good news is that this “provides an opportunity for preventive measures.”

At Fort Wainwright, soldiers can borrow light boxes, which provide broad-spectrum light that mimics daylight. Light boxes are best used in the morning, Kim said.

“For mild to moderate SAD, light box therapy is the first line of therapy,” she said. For more severe cases, antidepressant medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, known as SSRIs, might be prescribed.

Lifestyle Changes Can Help

A good deal of treatment for SAD involves behavioral and lifestyle changes.

There are other contributing factors to SAD and its severity, which can include reduced physical activity, poor diet, social isolation, and spending less time on enjoyable activities, Dederer said. To address some of these issues, she recommends:

  • Low-fat diets
  • Reduced carbohydrates
  • Reduced refined sugars

Dederer also suggested lifestyle changes, including:

  • Finding new hobbies to stay active in the winter
  • Making deliberate efforts to go outside during the daytime
  • Opening blinds to increase sun exposure
  • Socializing more with family and friends

Additionally, she suggested getting your vitamin D levels checked during the winter. Low vitamin D is a possible medical factor with SAD, although there is no conclusive scientific evidence to support that. Fort Wainwright provides free vitamin D supplements on-post.

Kim emphasized as important “good sleep hygiene – going to bed at the same time every night, no naps, and no caffeine in the afternoon.”

Additionally, she suggested adopting a “generally healthy lifestyle and exercising, which releases good endorphins in the brain and can help counteract any weight gain caused by overeating, and limiting excess alcohol.”

SAD Education

At Wainwright, the potential for SAD is addressed immediately upon a service member’s arrival, regardless of the time of year.

Wainwright has an outreach component, where behavioral health staff brief every soldier within their first week on base. They discuss challenges in Alaska’s climate and environment, signs of SAD and resources for addressing the condition.

“The hope is that the brief gives soldiers the information to encourage them to be proactive in identifying and preventing SAD symptoms,” Dederer said.

If SAD symptoms are identified in a soldier, the behavioral staff at Bassett “assess the extent to which symptoms might be seasonally driven” and recommend a treatment plan, she added.

SAD and Social Isolation

“Beware of the challenges in comparing your own needs to those of the people around you,” Dederer said.

“In winter, many people socialize less, which means they interact with their friends less often,” she said.

For instance, “They may believe they are the only one struggling with the ‘winter blues’ and are reluctant to seek help due to stigma. Or they think everyone is experiencing the same thing and there is no reason or benefit to seeking help. Both comparisons can be harmful in preventing someone from seeking help to address their symptoms,” Dederer cautioned.

“The upside is that these interventions are easy to do on your own and accessible to pretty much anyone,” Dederer said.

“The downside however is that the nature of SAD is cyclical – those with SAD have lower energy because of the reduced sunlight exposure, so they spend less time doing activities such as exercising and socializing with friends, and the withdrawal from these activities increases feelings of fatigue and depression, making it harder to put the lifestyle changes in place.”

“The most important thing is to not take it lightly,” Kim said. “Don’t chalk it up to winter blues, especially if you feel this way for more than two weeks.” Since SAD is a subtype of depression, it can lead to more severe depression and suicidal ideation.

“There are good treatment options for SAD, so reach out.”

You also may be interested in...

Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Resources Provide Help: You Are Not Alone

Article
4/22/2022
Military personnel posing for a picture

Life is full of ups and downs. But sometimes life events—financial strain, relationships, isolation, emotional or sexual abuse, stress, and misuse or abuse of alcohol or drugs—can lead to depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide for some. It’s important to remember that you are not alone.

Recommended Content:

Mental Health: Seeking Care with TRICARE | Suicide Prevention | Suicide Prevention | Psychological Fitness

How my sexual assault shaped me but did not break me

Article Around MHS
4/18/2022
Air Force Staff Sgt. Kayla White

Joining the military was an intense, transformational experience filled with rites of passage, experiences designed to prepare me to act as a member of a team and conform so I could truly commit to something bigger than myself. One unexpected and devastating experience during my initial training changed me forever.

Recommended Content:

Psychological Fitness | Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention

SAFE Option Provides Care for Victims of Sexual Violence

Article
4/14/2022
(From left) Evangeline Barefoot, Blanchfield Army Community Hospital Forensic Healthcare program manager shows Dr. Cynthia Tara Ferguson, Defense Health Agency Forensic Healthcare program director, protocols BACH follows for patients who come to the hospital after experiencing sexual violence. Barefoot said some victims may avoid medical treatment because they don’t want to report an assault, however seeking medical treatment does not obligate a service member to file an investigation or notify their command. (Photo: Maria Christina Yager)

A special medical exam, called a Sexual Assault Forensic Examination, SAFE, is available to survivors of sexual violence preserves lasting evidence that may aid in the prosecution of a perpetrator of sexual assault.

Recommended Content:

Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention | Psychological Fitness | Women's Health

SAAPM Be There

Infographic
4/8/2022
SAAPM Be There

It takes courage for anyone to report a sexual assault. Be there to help someone and you can make a real difference. www.Safehelpline.org, 877-995-5247 #SAAPM #SexualAssault #PreventAssault #TreatmentCanHelp #StepForward

Recommended Content:

Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention | Psychological Fitness

Anyone Can Experience Sexual Assault

Infographic
4/8/2022
Anyone Can Experience Sexual Assault

All members of the military community deserve to work and live in a respectful, inclusive environment while serving our nation. Anyone can experience sexual assault or hazing that crosses the line. It takes courage for anyone to report sexual assault. Learn more at the DOD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office Men’s SAPR Campaign site: https://www.sapr.mil/mens-sapr-campaign #SAAPM #SexualAssault #PreventAssault #TreatmentCanHelp #StepForward

Recommended Content:

Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention | Psychological Fitness

SAAPM Main

Infographic
4/8/2022
SAAPM Main

April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. This month, members of the military community are encouraged to enact the 2022 SAAPM theme: STEP FORWARD. Prevent. Report. Advocate. This is a call to action for individuals at all levels of the DOD to use their personal strength to advance positive change in preventing and reporting sexual violence. We ask that you join us in taking a #StepForward by highlighting acts that bolster prevention, increase reporting, and promote advocacy for a safer DOD community. #SAAPM #SexualAssault #PreventAssault #TreatmentCanHelp #StepForward https://www.sapr.mil/

Recommended Content:

Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention | Psychological Fitness

SAAPM: Safe Helpline

Infographic
4/8/2022
SAAPM: Safe Helpline

If you have experienced sexual assault, help is available. Contact the DOD Safe Helpline at 877-995-5247 to receive anonymous and confidential support and obtain information on your reporting options. #SAAPM #SexualAssault #PreventAssault #StepForward https://safehelpline.org/

Recommended Content:

Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention | Psychological Fitness

SAAPM month puts spotlight on importance of prevention

Article Around MHS
4/7/2022
SAAPM Infographic

 As the Army once again recognizes April as Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, its policy and processes for working through sexual harassment and sexual assault within its workforce are evolving to reflect lessons learned during the past 10 years

Recommended Content:

Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention | Psychological Fitness

Policy Update: Significant Improvements to Mental and Behavioral Health Policies

Article Around MHS
4/4/2022
A U.S. Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter flies over the sunset off the northern coast of Haiti in Nov. 2021

New updates to Coast Guard policy loosen restrictions and impacts on service members undergoing mental and behavioral health treatment for conditions including (but not limited to) anxiety and depressive disorders.

Recommended Content:

Psychological Fitness

A Healthy Mind and Body: The Psychological Aspects Weight Loss

Article
1/27/2022
Marines with 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, participate in a regimental run to celebrate St. Barbara’s Day at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Jan. 13.

It’s essential to dispel the belief that weight loss is a reflection of willpower or discipline – basically, that you can’t lose weight because you don’t want to or you’re not trying hard enough.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Physical Fitness | Nutritional Fitness | Psychological Fitness | Weight Management for Lasting Health

Six Immediate Health Benefits You Will See If You Lose a Little Weight

Article
1/14/2022
A soldier assigned to the 256th Combat Support Hospital, Twinsburg, Ohio, drinks water from a gallon-sized jug during Combat Support Training Exercise 18-03 at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, March 26, 2018. The 256th CSH implemented a goal setting competition, dubbed Dandy Camp, to teach and encourage soldiers to monitor their total carbohydrate intake during the field exercise. The overall goal of Dandy Camp is to educate soldiers about healthy eating choices and encourage soldiers to set and meet goals for themselves.

Losing even a little weight now can have a major impact on your health and quality of life. This long list of benefits might help motivate you to adjust your habits to achieve a happier, healthier lifestyle.

Recommended Content:

Physical Fitness | Women's Health | Heart Health | Nutritional Fitness | Psychological Fitness | Sleep

Talking Seasonal Affective Disorder

Article Around MHS
1/4/2022
Military personnel staring out of the window

Holiday blues, seasonal depression, and other terms have been used to describe what is now known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and more often than not, many factors play a role on an individual’s ability to be affected by this disorder each year around the holidays.

Recommended Content:

Depression | Psychological Fitness

Three Free Holiday Gifts That Boost Well-Being

Article
12/14/2021
Image of soldier holding a letter.

Gift giving is a fun and meaningful part of many cultures during the holidays. Try giving 3 “different” gifts to boost the well-being of the recipient and improve your well-being too. Best of all? They’re 100% free!

Recommended Content:

Psychological Fitness | Stress

Ask the Doc: How Do I Get Rid of the 'Dark Cloud' Over My Holidays?

Article
12/13/2021
A mask hanging on a Christmas tree

Doc talks to Jane Olien, a licensed clinical social worker assigned to Behavioral Health Clinical Operations, part of the DHA’s Medical Affairs/Clinical Support Division, in San Antonio, Texas, about combatting feelings of depression around the holidays.

Recommended Content:

Psychological Fitness | Total Force Fitness | Ask The Doc

People First priority for BJACH Behavioral Health Suicide Prevention Program

Article Around MHS
12/1/2021
Chuck Satterfield and Staff Sgt. Lori Fury hosting a training

Behavioral health professionals from Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital conducted leadership development training with the 519th Military Police Battalion at the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk, Louisiana in mid-November.

Recommended Content:

Psychological Fitness | Suicide Prevention | Suicide Prevention
<< < 1 2 3 4 5  ... > >> 
Showing results 46 - 60 Page 4 of 9
Refine your search
Last Updated: January 31, 2023
Follow us on Instagram Follow us on LinkedIn Follow us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on YouTube Sign up on GovDelivery