Illustration by Kayla Plater

Mental health suffers during abnormal winter

It has been a long winter. Between the ongoing pandemic, an attempted insurrection on our government and transitioning back to campus under enhanced social distancing, this year has brought additional mental health stressors. Robin Keillor, Lewis & Clark’s director of clinical services, spoke about the impact of this complicated winter on students’ mental health.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is one mental health challenge students may face during the winter. 

“It is not true for everybody; not everybody has that seasonal kind of depression of their mood,” Keillor said. “But for those people who do experience that, it can be very difficult to get through these short days.”

These days, Portland receives around 9 hours and 40 minutes of daylight. While that is about an hour longer than the winter solstice — at 8 hours and 40 minutes — the region is still far short of the almost 16 hours of daylight received on the longest day of the year, in June.

A seasonal change in the amount of sunlight and a resulting change in one’s circadian rhythm is one cause of SAD, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“When we have these shorter days, you go out in the morning and it’s dark; you come home around dinner time, and it’s dark,” Keillor said. “Especially if you don’t have much access during the day to some sun … then you can get pretty low on energy; you might feel kind of discouraged and sad.” 

Another complicating factor — for SAD and mental health in general — is the transition back to campus. Students from sunny areas might be particularly impacted by the move back to Portland, with its gray skies and rainy days. 

According to The New York Times, moving to a new place can have deep psychological impacts — both negative and positive. Moving can be a hopeful experience but can also upend one’s safety network. Especially for people who move less frequently, a fear of change may dominate the experience.

While the college’s enhanced social distancing measures at the beginning of the semester were necessary to curb the spread of COVID-19, they also may have contributed to the adverse mental health effects of isolation.

“It’s very isolating,” Keillor said. “Gray, rainy, cold, dark and stuck in your room is not a great combination.”

In dealing with the fatigue of winter and global events, and the impacts of moving back to campus, Keillor recommends social connection.

We know that there is benefit to connecting with other people. Building that network and a community of belonging is super important. We are social animals,” Keillor said. “We will not be a healthy community if we stay isolated.”

Socializing — whether with those friends who provide fun distractions, or those who offer deeper support — is an important way to curb the effects of isolation. Virtual connections, like through Zoom or FaceTime, present a far better solution that complete isolation. However, Keillor said that in-person connection is the most valuable.

“You do need some interactions that are in-person too, so long as you can safely do that,” she said. “Re-engaging is really helpful.”

She also recommends exercise or getting outside.

“Get some exercise, even if it’s just having a dance party in your room with your friends on FaceTime, or doing some stretching and yoga, or getting out for a walk,” Keillor said.

Keillor also welcomed students to seek on-campus counseling. Appointments for ongoing counseling or urgent, same- or next-day counseling are available. Currently, all appointments are over video calls, but according to their website, the Counseling Service has a “Zoom Room” for students seeking a private place to go for appointments.

Light therapy lamps are also available for two-week rental from the Counseling Service to help alleviate SAD. 

 “What we’re hearing is people are struggling with feeling … isolated … like (they) can’t do the things that they normally would like to do to distract themselves or to feel better,” Keillor said. “And so just for a bit longer, we need to be creative.”

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