Thursday, January 26, 2017

Winter Blues

By Sally Spencer-Thomas, CEO & Co-Founder, Carson J Spencer Foundation

Photo by land[e]scape
For some, winter is a time of celebration – the holidays, winter sports, beautiful snowy landscapes, and a reason to drink hot chocolate. For others, the shortened days bring on something called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). For people who experience SAD, otherwise known as the “Winter Blues,” they find their symptoms of mild depression start in the fall and end as the sun shines for more hours in the spring. People who live farther from the equator are more likely to feel the effects of shorter days. According to the American Family Physician, about 6% experience severe SAD and up to 20% may experience a milder form of the disorder.
Common symptoms include:

  • Lack of energy that is not fixed by increased sleep
  • Upset mood: irritability, sadness, mood swings, anxiety
  • Lose interest in your usual activities
  • Weight gain from increased carbohydrate craving
  • Distraction and decreased ability to cope with stress

What causes SAD? How can it be treated?
Sunlight affects our biological rhythms and our sleeping and hunger schedules. When we lose our ability to access sunlight, our “biological clock” is disrupted. Furthermore, sunlight affects one of our main mood chemicals, serotonin, the brain chemical that impacts sexual desire, feelings of well-being, sleep, memory and even the way we interact with one another.

Thus, treatment for SAD can involve light therapy, counseling, and medications. It also means making a conscious effort to get outdoors when there is sunlight.

Here, the Mayo Clinic offers more information on treatment and home remedies.

What is the relationship between SAD and suicide?

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi
There is a myth that the winter holidays and “winter blues” increase the risk for suicide. Many inadvertently may increase risk by perpetuating this myth and interfering with prevention efforts through this misinformation. According to the CDC, the suicide rate is, in fact, the lowest in December and the winter months around the world and the rate peaks in the spring and the fall. Several theories exist as to why this might be so. One is that during the holidays, more family tend to be around, which might increase a sense of connectedness or decrease opportunity for suicide. Another reason might be that people hold on for hope of positive changes in the new year, and when these changes don’t happen, their hopelessness increases. 

One final reason related to SAD is when the sun returns and the weather warms, some may find an “energized despair,” when before their energy was too low to act upon their suicidal thoughts.

In summary, Seasonal Affective Disorder is real and can be very disruptive to health, productivity and relationships. Like all other health conditions, early detection and treatment can significantly improve quality of life.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Finding Peace: Recovering After a Suicide Loss

Stories of lived experience can be used to fight the stigma of mental illness and suicide and to help get people involved in the movement. These journeys humanize the suicide prevention movement and help other people seek help. This series on lived experience is a great chance to highlight a loss survivor’s story and the search for meaning after loss.
Samantha Hancock lives and works as a hairstylist in Colorado Springs, Co, and is a friend of our Senior Program Director, Jess Stohlmann-Rainey. This is her story:
Photo by Aleksandar Radovanovic
It was earlier this summer when I caught word that my Uncle Steve (my mom’s brother) had gone missing. He had been missing for nearly 24 hours without any of his medication for his diabetes. If that wasn’t scary enough, the family was beside themselves wondering, “where in the world could he be and why wouldn’t he tell us?” He recently moved with his wife and stepdaughter back to Idaho to be closer to their immediate family. They had lived by our family in Colorado for the last 20 something years, so it was fair for her to want to be closer to hers.
I fondly remember my uncle in my childhood memories. My cousin, who is more like a sister to me being that we’re close in age and both only children, and I would jump for joy anytime we were able to see Uncle Steve. Each time we saw him he would take us to Toy’s R Us and let us pick out any one toy we wanted. He would later tell me funny stories how of all the toys I could’ve picked I would choose a broom or a small vacuum. He thought it was a riot how domestic I was for a five-year-old. As I became a teenager, which also meant a know-it-all hellion, I grew apart from him along with some of the rest of the family for a time, as some teenagers do during that phase. Luckily I came back around as a functioning, more respectful adult in my later years.
I’ve seen him nearly every year since my youth at the holidays until this last one. He was always the one to make the turkey. We’d enjoy the holidays together and catch each other at family dinners here and there. We had since mended our relationship as I became a grown up, but in all honesty, we were never particularly close again. That doesn’t make my time shared with him less meaningful or less grieved when it comes to his suicide.
My mother, grandmother, aunt and I recently returned from a trip to Japan. It’s where my grandmother came from and we wanted to take her back to her homeland for perhaps her final time since she’ll be 84 next year.  As three generations together, we experienced a beautiful journey back to learn more about our ancestral beginnings. We were able to see Mount Fuji - Fuji being my uncle’s nickname. It was off in the distance and only briefly, but it was a cherished sight to see the mountain that represented the man we all missed so much.
Photo by Alejandro Gonzales
I travel quite frequently and of all the religious relics I’ve seen, the Buddhist temples in Japan are my most adored. I am not a highly religious person, but upon arriving to the temple, something felt different within. In respect to the moment, I bowed. I closed my eyes as tears swelled, I felt overwhelmed with emotion so I decided to pray. Among other prayers I had for myself and for the world, I prayed that my uncle found peace. That whatever pain he was in was gone now, and that he moved onto the next chapter of wherever we are taken next. I felt better afterwards. I felt at peace. We will be taking a trip to the Pacific Northwest early next year to spread his ashes - this is where he always wanted to end up, by the ocean near Oregon.
After receiving the news of his death I was only a few weeks away from a month long trip to Europe I had planned for all year. I didn’t know if I should feel guilty leaving the family behind after such devastating events took place, but they all encouraged me to go ahead. It was a wonderful opportunity for me, and he would’ve wanted me to go. He would give me grief about how hard my life must be - galavanting around the globe all of the time. After returning from my earlier travels he would share stories with me about when he used to travel in the Navy, it was something we could talk about and share, something we both understood - travel. He hadn’t traveled in some time, but I remember seeing him light up when he spoke of his youth in the navy and some of the places he was able to see. My trip after his death ended up being one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. I think it’s because I realized more than ever how precious our lives are, and how important is to seize any opportunity you want and to make it your own. I realized how our own happiness can be an inner battle, and at times it will be, but it’s a battle worth fighting every ounce of your being with, because once you achieve those happy moments the bad ones seem to fall away.
My uncle taking his life left a lot of uncertainty amongst the family, as suicide usually does. There are unanswered questions that will remain unresolved, and there is no peace in that. You have to find and create your own peace when you lose someone in this manner. It’s no easy task, but you get to take your time and deal with it the best you can. We all handle death differently, and you’re allowed to go through the stages of mourning that accompany the loss of someone you loved. It helps me cope knowing that he is no longer in pain. He unfortunately made the choice to end his suffering without seeking prior help, but I can’t be angry at someone who isn’t here anymore. I believe if he had reached out, my family would’ve done all we could to help him, but looking back I knew my uncle was in pain, physical and emotional pain. I know he was dependent on pain killers, and I know he was unhappy. We all ask what we could’ve done differently, I think of a million things. But asking those questions over and over never brings him back. I must go on, living wholeheartedly and with resilience, proud that I once knew the man he was - adventurous, funny, and kind.
Photo by Google Images
My Uncle Steve would be so proud of all my traveling I continue to do. I believe he was excited by how I made it such a priority in my life and actually accomplished it. I think he would be proud to see me truly living my life, never in vain. Always remembering him, but moving forward because that’s my only option. We are each given this life, what we do with it is up to us. You make the choice to live or not. I choose life for myself, and I hope I can help inspire and encourage anyone who is having a hard time making that choice.
The fault is never yours when someone else takes their own life. You must make peace with that before you can begin the healing and mending that is to ensue. It is no easy path, no one said it is. Death is such a definite part of life, the one and only thing that ceases us to exist. Finding peace in that is hard in itself, but I encourage you to take that and turn it into a reminder to do whatever you want in life from this day forward. Take your pain and turn it into something beautiful. Believe in life after the loss you are suffering from, because there is so much more awaiting you.

The effects of a suicide loss are long-lasting and far-reaching. Many survivors look for ways to make meaning out of their loss and celebrate the life of their loved one. There are many wonderful organizations that provide life-saving suicide prevention programming. The Carson J Spencer Foundation elevates the conversation to make suicide prevention a health and safety priority. Through a variety of prevention programs, Carson J Spencer Foundation is changing the face of suicide loss. Whether you partner with our organization, or another, we encourage you to get involved. Giving a gift, in memory of a loved one lost, can help create the meaning that so many seek. For more information, please visit