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Feeling SAD? Shed light on coping with the darker days

Fewer hours of daylight in winter can trigger months of depression for many people. Newry man Anthony Fitzpatrick tells Stephanie Bell how he is fighting the condition, while overleaf Una Brankin reveals her coping strategy

Published 03/11/2015

Low ebb: for many people SAD is a debilitating condition
Low ebb: for many people SAD is a debilitating condition
Newry dad Anthony Fitzpatrick, who suffers from SAD, taking part in the New Horizons programme to help with the condition
New hope: Anthony Fitzpatrick with Patricia Kelly at New Horizons in Newry

Newry father-of-five Anthony Fitzpatrick dreads the winter. While the cold, short days of the season can be unpleasant for many of us, for Anthony it is a particularly dark time, when he struggles to cope with day-to-day life.

The 48-year-old is one of an estimated half a million people in the UK who are struck by Seasonal Affective Disorder known as SAD.

SAD is caused by a biochemical imbalance in the brain triggered by the shortening of daylight hours and the lack of sunlight in winter.

It usually hits hardest during November, December and January, but can strike from September through to April.

For an estimated 1-2% of the UK population, SAD is a seriously disabling illness preventing them from functioning normally without continuous medical treatment.

For a further 20%, it is a mild but debilitating condition, causing discomfort but not severe suffering, called sub-dyndromal SAD, or more commonly "winter blues".

Anthony has battled depression for the past two years but finds everyday life even harder to face during the winter months when it can be a struggle for him to even get out of bed.

This year he hopes to try and beat SAD with the help of Action Mental Health's New Horizons programme, which he attends in his home town of Newry.

New Horizons has been a lifeline to Anthony who, for a long time, couldn't leave the house because of his depression.

Even before the clocks changed the shortening days were already beginning to take their toll on Anthony's mental health and with winter looming he knows that a tough battle lies ahead.

He says: "My depression is always worse in the winter. I usually can't motivate myself to even shave and I don't want to leave the house.

"It just seems to get so much worse and I would have this big beard which is terrible looking.

"The last two winters have been awful and I barely left home. My confidence just seems to go completely during the winter months and all I want to do is shut myself away.

"It will be a test now to see how I cope this year, as I really want to try not to let it beat me.

"During the rest of the year I can somehow manage to keep myself going but already I can feel the effects of the winter months. Last Thursday I couldn't go out at all and spent the whole day in bed.

"New Horizons has given me a real boost - but some days I find it hard to make it down there.

"It is only 10 minutes away from my home and I would be half way there and the anxiety would take over and it would be like fight or flight, when I ask myself 'Should I go back home or go on?' I have to force myself to go on and a couple of times I have turned back."

New Horizons aims to help people to overcome the effects of mental ill health and in many cases, return to work.

There are 10 centres across the province offering recognised qualifications and training, personal development programmes and social and recreational activities.

Anthony has been taking part in a number of programmes with his local centre in Newry including a walking group which has helped him to start socialising again for the first time in two years; as well as courses in self confidence and gardening, and he is now involved in client advice.

Married to Roisin (42) he has five children Nathan (22), Naomi (20), Megan (19), Antoinette (17), and Jordana (12). He worked as a trainee greenkeeper in his local golf club before depression hit out of the blue just over two years ago.

His wife had suffered complications after the birth of their youngest child which left her in a wheelchair for four and a half years.

Anthony was the one who held the family together and it was a shock to everyone when he became depressed.

For a long time he didn't leave the house and, as he stayed indoors getting no exercise, he also had to cope with his weight ballooning from 17 stone to 21 stone in two years.

He recalls: "I used to be the life and soul of the party and very happy go lucky. I would have been out every Saturday night socialising and then it just seemed like suddenly I didn't want to leave the house. Things like not even being able to take Jordana to school really hit me hard.

"I felt like I was letting my family down and I just couldn’t pick myself up.

“I even lost contact with my wider family circle.

“I just hid myself away and didn’t care about life any more.

“I eventually went to my GP and she referred me to a counsellor, which really helped, and it was through her that I got the referral to New Horizons.

“New Horizons has got me out socialising again and is helping with my low self-esteem. I have freshened myself up and the beard is gone.

“I am really starting to feel stronger, although it is always still a struggle.”

Anthony has been attending New Horizons one or two days a week for the past six months and hopes that the support he receives there will carry him through this winter, keeping the worst affects of SAD at bay.

Patricia Kelly, client development co-ordinator for New Horizons in Newry and Mourne, says that the charity sees a spike in depression among its clients at this time of the year.

“Our clients would have anxiety or depression or a mixture of the two. At this time of the year, we do see many people suffer more and they seem to have much less motivation, increased loneliness and less optimism,” she explains.

“While there is no specific diagnostic test for SAD, generally speaking we find that many of our service users need increased support at this time of the year.

“We do our best to help them to counteract the symptoms through stress management programmes.

“I think more research needs to be done into SAD to help people, as I am sure there are many people who probably have it and don’t realise it.

“The dark evenings can be lonely for people and there is a demotivating factor as well, as people don’t want to go out.

“Our services work through a referral system and certainly people can access us by speaking to their mental health worker or by calling into their local centre and talking to us.”

Light at the end of the tunnel

■ Light therapy is effective for SAD in up to 85% of cases. It involves daily exposure to very bright light. Average or office lighting is 200-500 lux, but the minimum dose necessary to treat SAD is 2,500 lux. A bright summer day can be 100,000 lux

■ Treatment should be daily in winter, from early autumn. It involves sitting two to three feet from a light box

 ■ Treatment is usually effective in three to four days and the effect continues provided it is used every day

■ Light boxes are not available on the NHS. Recommended retailers can be found on the website of the national charity SADA at www.sada.org.uk

■ For more information on New Horizons, go to www.amh.org.uk

Belfast Telegraph

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