Sad or SAD? The importance of language in mental health

With increased awareness comes increased diagnoses

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a well-known phenomenon in the mental health community, particularly in Canada, where our country’s dark, harsh winters tend to contribute to the disorder’s development. However, the term is often tossed around jokingly or as something that is extremely common. While not rare per se, like any other mental illness, SAD is definitely not something that “everyone goes through.” An estimated two to four per cent of Canadians suffer from SAD according to the Mood Disorders Society of Canada. There is a difference between feeling crappy in the winter because it’s cold and gross, and feeling depressed.

People use words incorrectly all the time, especially when it comes to mental illnesses. How many times have you heard a friend say that they’ll be so depressed if they don’t do well on an exam, that their significant other changes their mind so many times in a day they’re bipolar; or that they’re “kind of OCD” because they love alphabetizing things? Or maybe they say that they’re ADD because they keep changing the topic of conversation. SAD is just more frequently referenced right now because anyone can see that the weather is terrible.

It’s no wonder that people who actually have these mental illnesses are so misunderstood. The way that other people talk about mental illness is not representative of the realities of those affected. A person in sound mental health cannot possibly fathom what it is like to have a mental illness because they have never experienced it, and using these illnesses as adjectives in ordinary sentences trivializes and invalidates the experiences of those who struggle every single day with them.

Take me, for example — people love to tell me how socially awkward they are when I tell them that I have social anxiety, but socially awkward is not the same as genuinely believing that no one likes you, taking an hour or more to “warm up” at social gatherings, barely speaking to anyone other than family for an entire year, and having panic attacks on dates. It’s not “adorkable,” it’s terrifying — not to mention weird and confusing for the people around you.

Believe me, when I was in my darkest mental place only a year ago, not doing well on an exam was hardly my biggest issue. I was impressed with myself if I could even physically get up, go to school, and take the exam, period.

Ultimately, it sounds cheesy, but listen to what your gut is telling you. Don’t listen to people who tell you that “everyone goes through that” and “it seems like everyone has something these days.” Don’t let anyone else invalidate your feelings. If you don’t feel well, there is a reason. It may or may not be mental illness, but it never hurts to see a doctor.

Negative thought patterns and other symptoms of SAD could be combatted effectively by making a persistent effort to live an active lifestyle. Going outdoors, increasing the amount of natural light you receive during the day, along with eating well and exercising regularly are sure-fire techniques to counteract the winter blues — that being said, there are people who find that medications such as anti-depressants are their best tools against the symptoms of SAD and depression. For others, moderating symptoms might be as easy as finding a support group, such as Active Minds at U of T.

Chelsea Ricchio is the president of Active Minds at U of T. She also works as the Creative Projects & Communications Assistant at Healthy Minds Canada.

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