Time to Look Forward to 2017! Seasonal Affective Disorder

It’s a sad time of year! No, really: December January and February see the peak for a seasonal type of depression known as SAD or seasonal affective disorder – although the symptoms often begin in Autumn as days start to get shorter. Although the exact cause is not clear, it is thought that reduced exposure to sunlight may cause a part of the brain to be less active in producing chemicals that help to stimulate.

Many of us however experience the common symptoms anyway after the holiday period – low mood, irritability, craving carbohydrates and feeling tired and lethargic are frequent feelings as we start the year and many New Year’s resolutions reflect the need to be positive about the forthcoming year.

However, without wishing to be depressing, it is important to recognise that mental health issues are very common and affect very many of us – in an average year 25% of adults will experience mental ill health symptoms and its frightening to recognise that the economic impacts of mental ill health cost over one and half trillion pounds worldwide. So in January which is mental health awareness month, and which leads up to a “Time to Talk” day in the first week of February it’s worth challenging why we aren’t doing better at improving mental health.

One in three people who have mental health problems will also experience physical symptoms of ill health, such as joint pain or stomach upsets. For those with physical health problems it is often not recognised that nearly half will also experience mental health symptoms such as low mood and withdrawal – this can often make recovery slower.

Unfortunately, mental health problems are still a source of stigma, it’s hard for employees to admit issues and lack of understanding and knowledge often leads to mistrust and fear of how best to support a colleague.

The leading Time to Change campaign seeks to demystify and encourage greater awareness of mental health issues – it is too easy to forget to ask “are you OK” or offer “is there anything I can do to help” and the simple act of contact is really important to reduce the isolation and withdrawal that accompanies many mental health issues.

This is a key reason that the Empactis Absence Manager approach seeks to ensure managers can be prepared and encouraged to have early contact with an employee – whether its attributed to a physical or a mental health problem. Positive contact, offering support, and reinforcing that an employer cares, is a hugely important first step. Maintaining contact, can help encourage early return to work, which for the majority is a very important factor in maintaining and improving mental well-being.

In the latter part of 2016 I welcomed the Governments ‘The Work Health & Disability Green, which raised many issues which are contributing to poor sickness absence rates and barriers to those with disability returning to work. I think some of the facts relayed in support of the paper are really frightening, the number of people with disability has risen by over 400,000 in recent years and 2.6million people in the UK are thought to be disabled due to mental health issues. Of these only 32% are currently in employment and waiting times for mental health treatment vary across England by approximately 12 weeks (yet we know early treatment and support is important for these conditions).

At this time of year therefore, I think it’s worth using the fact that it is mental health awareness month to spend just a little time looking at the excellent information from organisations such as expert charities (like Mind, Mencap or the Samaritans), or free health resources such as those in the Time for Change campaign or on the NHS Choices website to help to understand mental health and be better prepared to offer support to others when needed.