Along with the food, festivities, and family gatherings that come with the holiday season, for a certain number of people something else comes this time of year—depression.
Sometimes, said De’Netta Benjamin-Miller, senior director of behavioral health for Familylinks, it may just be “holiday blues.”
“Depending on severity, it might just be a temporary low point from stress, spending money, or agitation with relatives,” said Benjamin-Miller. “But if it lasts longer, it might be Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, which is a form of depression.”
Linked to the annual lessening of daylight that occurs in fall and winter, SAD primarily affects those already suffering from some form of depression and can be debilitating. However, those afflicted, especially in the Black community, may not be aware of the disorder or methods of treatment—not all of which require medication.
In general, Benjamin-Miller said, with more young people succumbing to suicide, bullying—discussion of mental health issues within the Black community is growing, but there are longstanding cultural taboos about mental health as well as personal fears.
“People are afraid that if they reach out they’ll be judged because of their race or low economic status. Only about one in four are even treated,” said Benjamin-Miller. “Sometimes it’s about faith—that we’re cheating on God or Jesus if we see a therapist. But Jesus said we are supposed to help each other—and some people are more skilled at this than others.”
With SADs, symptoms mimic other forms of depression; disinterest in favorite activities, lethargy, even wild spending.
“People say they don’t want to go to line dancing or bingo, they just want to stay in bed,” she said. “They may overeat, especially carbohydrates, because that gives a temporary serotonin boost to the brain, but like caffeine or sugar, it’s replaced by a crash.”
Benjamin-Miller urges people to get a checkup, especially if they have a family history of depression. In the case of SADs, treatment might only involve taking more vitamin D—which the body makes less of as sun exposure is reduced—and using a “light box.”
Therapeutic light boxes put out 10,000 lumens and very low ultraviolet light to mimic natural daylight. Most clinicians recommend using it within an hour of waking, placed between 18 inches and two feet from the face, for an hour—if possible, but at least 30 minutes.
“I use a light therapy box, it’s in my office. It should be used every day for a minimum of 30 minutes,” said Benjamin-Miller. “It is effective, especially when used in concert with talk therapy.”
Benjamin-Miller said being able to talk with a therapist can help reframe any thinking that might be irrational and provide tools to counteract them.
“Some people have concerns about cultural competency, but there are therapists of color out there who do this,” she said. “Online directories like Psychology Today have listings, and of course, you could also see us at FamilyLinks.”
Benjamin-Miller said she will continue to post information on mental wellness online and will urge clergy to communicate about therapy and educate about medication.
“You’re not crazy—we have to get rid of that stigma,” she said. “If you need medication, that doesn’t mean it’s a ‘life sentence’—it could be a whole new life.”
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