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Why So Sad, Idaho?

The holidays can mean more than just the blues

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It's dark and gloomy until late in the morning and returns to the gloom early in the evening. Just the other day, it seems, we were complaining about the heat and trying to keep cool. Now we're hustling about in the pre-holiday frenzy trying to keep warm.

No wonder, then, that Idaho was ranked as one of the saddest states in the union last month by a group of mental-health researchers.

Mental Health America, a nonprofit devoted to positive mental health, looked at access-to-care factors, actual health outcomes and suicide rates. The four major factors in their study included: 1) the percentage of the adult population experiencing at least one major depressive episode in the past year, 2) the percentage of the adolescent population (ages 12 to 17) experiencing at least one major depressive episode in the past year, 3) the percentage of the adult population experiencing serious psychological distress, and 4) the average number of days in the past 30 days in which the population reported that their mental health was not good.

When they ran the numbers, Idaho ranked 45th in the country, down there in the dumps. (Fear not; Utah was worst-ranked. Those people are seriously down.)

Idaho largely ignored the news that it was so bummed out. Some clinical psychologists say they're not surprised that people are coming to them with the blues or worse.

"The holidays are stressful," said Roberta Crockett, a clinical psychologist in Boise. "A lot of people get stressed out this time of year."

Crockett and others in her field say there is a difference, however, from what might best be described as the "holiday blues" and a seasonal disorder popularly known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. The blues are more a worsening of the mood brought on by stress, change in diet or a reaction to limited natural light.

"Holiday blues could best be described as a mild level of depression or anxiety," said Carrie Eichberg, a psychologist in Boise. "With the typical holiday blues, people will be able to articulate that. They have reasons why they're stressed out. It could be loss or separation from loved ones."

Lately, however, Crockett said she's been encountering plenty of SAD sufferers. This syndrome, she said, is related to low light (early darkness and late sunrise) and inspires an increased level of lethargy among its sufferers.

"In some ways, this looks like a human version of hibernation," Crockett said of SAD sufferers. "They eat more carbohydrates. They sleep more. They gain weight." It is not to be confused with a serious clinical depression, she said.

At the risk of simplifying the problem, Crockett said people need to concentrate on getting enough exercise, eating well and possibly consider buying a "light box," a high-intensity light they sit in front of for as many as 15 to 20 minutes per day, to inspire the production of serotonin, the brain's primary mood regulator.

Other solutions are less clinical.

"People need to anticipate the pleasurable things at this time of year," Crockett said. "Go cross-country skiing. Listen to music you like. Spend time with friends One of the things depression does is isolate people. Staying in touch with your loved ones is helpful."

The study that has pegged us as so down in the dumps? It might be depressing to find that the report from Mental Health America was funded largely by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, maker of the antidepressant drug Effexor.

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