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For many of us, winter is our least favorite season. It’s cold out, there’s less daylight, the trees are bare, and venturing out into the winter weather rarely sounds appealing. (In fact, it’s a grey out right now as I’m writing this.) Because of this, grumbling about the winter weather is a common conversation topic in the office and at home. We long for those sunny summer days and sigh at the prospect of another dreary day of single-digit temperatures.

But one thing I’ve noticed as a therapist is that many people are quick to classify their gloomy attitude towards winter as Seasonal Affective Disorder. Suddenly, it seems that everyone is battling SAD. But, are we really? 

While the darker and colder days of winter have us all dreaming of warm, sunny days at the beach, that doesn’t necessarily mean we all meet the clinical diagnosis for a seasonal pattern of a Major Depressive Disorder, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a type of depression where a major depressive episode occurs typically during the fall or winter. Feeling gloomy and just generally hating the cold doesn’t mean we’re clinically depressed but it’s common to hear friends and coworkers complain that they’re depressed once the temperature drops. It seems that we’re quick to self-diagnose our negative moods not only with depression, but also with other clinical terms like anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and bipolar.

We would never diagnose ourselves as having diabetes without seeking a professional opinion, and we’d never be content to decide we’ve broken a bone without going for x-rays and treatment. Why then are we so quick to diagnose ourselves with a major depressive disorder? 

Don’t get me wrong. Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health issues affecting Americans today and those experiencing any symptoms of depression or anxiety should proactively seek a diagnosis and help. Over 40 million adults (18.1%) are affected by an anxiety disorder every year and Major Depressive Disorder affects 6.1 million adults (6.7%) in the U.S, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Treatment for anxiety and depression are two of the most common reasons my clients seek therapy. Still, as a therapist, it’s frustrating to hear people throw around these serious diagnoses so casually. 

I believe that a big part of the problem is that there is a lot of misunderstanding about what mental health issues like depression, anxiety, OCD, and bipolar actually are. Living with these disorders can be debilitating and are so much more than feeling stressed, irritable or worried about life’s stresses. Being diagnosed with a mental disorder usually requires professional treatment, while an occasional bout of the winter blues can be helped by general self-care or by making the most of the winter season.

Someone who likes to stay organized and describes themselves as OCD, doesn’t understand how debilitating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder really is. The intense anxiety and fear that they have to fight against in order to not give in to a compulsion (whether it be washing their hands over and over until they crack and bleed, checking to make sure the door is locked for the tenth time, or going to the emergency room again because the fear of developing lung cancer is too strong). Color-coded binders and a well-organized pantry are not on the same level as these debilitating obsessions and compulsions and yet some of us are quick to file these very different experiences under the same category of OCD.

In a similar way, there’s often misunderstanding about what it really means to be depressed. Individuals living with depression often feeling hopeless, intense feelings of guilt and worthlessness, low energy, suicidal thoughts, low energy, and isolation. Some of my patients will struggle simply to get out of bed in the morning. It’s not because they’re lazy, it’s because they are dealing with a debilitating mental illness. This is a very different experience from feeling lethargic because it’s gloomy outside on a winter’s day.

Not only do we dilute the meaning of these diagnoses when we use them flippantly, we also loose an appreciation for the brave struggle of those individuals who are seeking treatment and managing the symptoms of these serious mental health issues. Educating ourselves about mental illness is one of the most important things you can do to bring awareness to what it’s really like to live with one of these disorders. The National Institute for Mental Health has an easy-to-use and informative database you can use to help increase your understanding and awareness.