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Let’s Talk about Mental Health: seasonal depression

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The cycle of the seasons and living in a ski resort town


We all have our cycles and seasons of doing and solitude, running and staying, being involved and being removed, questing and resting, creating and incubating, being of the world and returning to the soul-place [ourselves].” – Clarissa Pinkola Este

When I first moved to Big Sky, I remember having a conversation with an individual who had been here for nearly a decade. He put his index finger in the air and slowly began drawing a circle, saying: “Living here is like a circle, but spiraling forward—you continue to advance forward whereby aging or personal growth, but often find yourself in the same place because the cycles of winter, summer and shoulder seasons are inevitable.” 

I then was prescribed a guide for how to navigate the cycle of the seasons. In short, the prescription entailed hunkering down and reveling in the beauty and adventure during winter and summer seasons and bailing to surrounding areas that are dry during mud seasons.

Unlike prescription drug ads that give you an absurd list of risks and side effects at the end, we were not necessarily informed of the risks and emotional, psychological and behavioral side effects of living in a mountain resort town. A soothing voice tells you, “the mountains will deliver adventure, tranquility and open-skies,” but alternatively, does not tell you that you might increase your drinking and drug use, experience suicidal thoughts and feel bouts of loneliness and depression that fluctuate with the seasons. The first shoulder season, especially, can make you feel a bit duped and unprepared.

A 2020 Gallatin County Community Health Assessment reported on the prevalence of excessive drinking behaviors in Big Sky (33.9 percent), personal impacts of substance abuse (48.5 percent negatively impacted) and depression diagnoses (28.6 percent). Note: These numbers account for Big Sky residents and don’t reflect the seasonal workforce population or the growth within the past year. However, it is unknown how many people that live and/or work in Big Sky experience fluctuations in appetite, energy, sleep patterns, mood, anxiety, depression, feelings of guilt and even thoughts of death or suicide that sync with the changing seasons. In other words, it is unknown how many people experience seasonal depression. 

Though concrete statistics are challenging to find, seasonal depression (formally known as Seasonal Affective Disorder) affects approximately 10 million Americans. It is estimated that another 10-20 percent are mildly affected or unreported. The average age of onset is between 20 and 30 years old and prevalence appears to be related to areas that are at higher elevations. Can you guess why? 

The answer is similar to the reasons Montana remains in the top five for highest suicide rates for the past 30 years. The figure below was adapted from the state’s Suicide Prevention Coordinator’s Suicide in Montana Report (Department of Public Health and Human Services):

 Perhaps it is comforting to know that the cycle and fluctuation of the seasons, moods, energy, and weirdness that comes with living in a ski resort town is normal. Know you are not alone and depression IS treatable. Many things inhibit us from reaching out for help: “I can figure it out on my own,” “I don’t want to be a burden”, “It’s not that big of a deal”. Sometimes, however, symptoms can feel unmanageable or life seems overwhelming. It’s okay to not be okay, AND it’s okay to ask for help.

Shannon Steele is the behavioral health program officer at the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, and values a collaborative and community-centered approach to mental/behavioral health and wellness. She has a background in mind-body wellness and community health, and is also a certified yoga instructor and active volunteer. Community, wellness and the outdoors have always been pillars in Shannon’s life.

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