Seasonal Blues? With the Holidays Soon Upon Us, Watch for Signs of Depression in Those You Love

October 01, 2013

It seems earlier every year that the familiar hues of red and green begin to appear wherever we look. Maybe these early seasonal cues can remind us to watch for the holiday blues—a condition that often goes undetected among the seniors in our lives. Here’s what to look out for and how to help.

What It Is

It’s important to understand the difference between the “holiday blues” and biochemical depression, says James S. Brust, MD, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center San Pedro.

One is situational, while the other is internal.

“The holidays are supposed to be a happy time, but the expectation of cheer may make some feel worse,” Dr. Brust explains, adding that lost loved ones, lost independence or lost mobility can contribute to holiday blues. “Meanwhile, those with biochemical, depressive illness are more vulnerable to experiencing full-on episodes during this time.”

What to Watch For

While Dr. Brust says most people associate depression with feeling sad, there are several other hallmark signs, including inactivity, hopelessness, negative outlook and loss of energy, enthusiasm or appetite. “Everything just kind of slows down and gets negative,” he says.

What to Do

For seasonal depression, Dr. Brust recommends a robust effort by friends and family. “If the depression seems to be related to a loss, you encourage people, get families around them, get them into activities,” he says. “Show them that life is worth living.”

In cases of biochemical depression, medication—either by itself, or in conjunction with psychotherapy—can be extremely effective. “If depression is truly an internal event, you’ve got to go in there with something to smooth it over,” Dr. Brust says.

A Mental Health America survey reveals that depressed seniors are more likely than any other group to “handle it themselves.” Don’t be afraid to offer help, opening a discussion with a statement such as: “I’ve noticed you don’t seem yourself. What’s going on? Let’s get you in to see a doctor.”

“If they say, ‘Oh, no, I’m fine,’ you might have to leave it alone for a few days,” Dr. Brust says. “But keep your eyes open. Bring it up again. Show them you care and want to help.”