“I went through a depressive swing. It was unbearable,” she says. Eventually, Hornickel told her roommate she wanted to die.
Since then, Hornickel has been in a partial hospitalization program to treat suicidal ideation, depression and bipolar disorder, and she recognizes that her initial reaction to quarantine was a manic episode. Although she’s doing a lot better, there’s a nagging worry: wintertime.
“For me, personally, the nighttime is really hard,” Hornickel says. “And when there’s not sunlight and sunshine and things to do — at that time in the winter — it definitely compounds those feelings.”
Hornickel is describing seasonal depression, known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. It’s a type of depression that occurs when it gets colder, there’s less light and it’s more difficult to get outside. Mental health experts worry that, because the pandemic has already triggered depressive symptoms in many Americans, more people will experience seasonal depressive symptoms this winter.
A survey study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in September found that U.S. adults were reporting levels of depressive symptoms more than three times higher during the pandemic than before it. A survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June yielded similar results, with more U.S. adults reporting adverse mental health symptoms, particularly in young adults, racial and ethnic minorities and essential workers. (On the flip side, a survey done of U.S. teens from May to July found that teens actually fared well when it came to depression and loneliness.)
The American Psychological Association has seen a sharp increase in suicidal ideation, particularly among young adults, during the pandemic, according to Vaile Wright, senior director of health-care innovation. “I think that’s, in large part, due to the level of uncertainty around covid,” she says. While most disasters have a beginning, middle and end, she adds, the pandemic has continued — with no end in sight.
Summer offered a bit of a respite. As evidence mounted that socializing outdoors is safer, “I think people really relied on their ability to take advantage of the nice weather,” Wright says. But the coming winter months will probably complicate how people are experiencing depression, whether they also suffer from SAD or not, experts say.
Although only a small percentage of people typically report seasonal depression (most estimates put it at 6 percent of the U.S. population for severe symptoms and 14 percent for mild symptoms), Wright says she wouldn’t be surprised if there’s another increase in depressive symptoms among the population in general as the cold weather compounds social isolation.
Lisa Carlson, president of the American Public Health Association, agrees. According to Carlson, seasonal depression is more common in people who have a history of depression. “It may be the people who are at risk of seasonal affective disorder may be the same people for whom covid has already triggered depression,” she says. “So, we may have a lot of overlap in those people.” Carlson also says seasonal depression and clinical depression