Question: My sister has been withdrawn recently. She appears depressed. She has been in poor health, but her mood has really darkened in the past few weeks, especially as Christmas gets closer. Is she depressed?
"Tis the season" to be jolly, but many people struggle at this time of the year. There are some good reasons for this, and it is quite common. I heard in a sermon once, "While the orchestra proclaims celebration and joy, if you listen closely enough, you will hear the melancholy sound of the French horn, reminding us that someone somewhere has need of consolation." I found the thought so profound and expressive that I have remembered Bruce Morgan's words ever since.
There is a well-known condition known as "Seasonal Affective Disorder", or SAD, that occurs in winter months. Your sister may be more prone to it related to her state of overall health, since there is a nearly 100% correlation between chronic pain and depression.
There is a gland in the brain that secretes substances that affect mood, and the gland is stimulated into action by ultraviolet light from the sun. When the sun is behind clouds in cold weather, or when there is less of it because the days are shorter, the gland is less active. If you are teetering on depression, this can send you over the edge.
Like with other depression states, you may notice changes in appetite; loss of energy and ability to concentrate on tasks later in the day; slow, lethargic body movement; withdrawal from social activities; and, irritability or unhappiness. It can be extraordinarily frustrating for the family, coworkers, and friends who may not understand what is happening to your sister.
There are some conservative measures that may help. Since lack of exposure to light is contributory, take your sister on walks during the daylight hours. You can also use very bright fluorescent lights in the home to mimic sunlight. If light exposure is going to help, it should work in three or four weeks. Of course, if your sister is taking any medications that increase sensitivity to light, this is not a good option, and you would need to consult your doctor first.
Talk to your sister about her feelings. SAD can usually be turned around with time and understanding, but if she is bipolar or has a history of other forms of depression, it is particularly important to identify any suicidal thoughts. If she has any thoughts of harming herself, get her to her doctor as soon as possible.
Take the initiative to get your sister out of the house and involved in the events of the Christmas season. She needs stimulation from family and friends. Help her decorate her home, or take her to musical productions.
If these conservative measures do not help the condition within a month, consider taking your sister to her doctor to discuss whether she needs mediations to help her. Medications should never be your first option, but they are helpful in some cases where conservative measures do not succeed.
Most of us have been touched by a serious illness or death of a loved one during a major holiday, so the very happy events that make it memorable can be a problem for people who are reminded of those losses. All of us should remember that while there is much celebration going on at Christmas, it is a SAD time of the year for some. As you hear the happy sounds of the orchestra of Christmas, listen closely for the mournful French horn. Reach for whoever is blowing it, and hug them.