‘Dr. J’ returns to raise awareness of SAD

Peggy Revell

Just in time for the long winter that’s ahead, former Fort Frances physician Dr. Ted Jablonski, stopped by the district last Friday as part of his “SAD No More” tour to promote awareness about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Known to many as “Dr. J”, Dr. Jablonski made Fort Frances his home for numerous years before moving out west to Calgary in 1998.
His “SAD No More” tour saw him bike across the country these past months to raise awareness and inspire action on SAD—a type of depression he was diagnosed with in the years following his move away from Fort Frances.
“[SAD] is a major depressive disorder,” stressed Dr. Jablonski at La Place Rendez-Vous, where his talk was hosted by the local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.
“It is not a mild version [of depression]. It is not just ‘Oh just suck it up you’re a little bit down in the Winter,’” he added.
“This—in pure form—is a true major depressive disorder that demands therapy.”
Depression is a mental health illness that’s characterized by a low mood or a loss of interest in things—and SAD is the exact same thing, Dr. Jablonski explained, only it comes in fall and winter and gets better in spring and summer.
Symptoms are like that of a hibernating bear, he noted, including weight gain, loss of energy, and feeling the need to “sleep, sleep, sleep,” without any of this sleep being restorative—and like all forms of depression, have a very physical effect on a person.
“There’s so many people out there who are suffering in silence, who actually could do a lot better if they sought out help,” said Dr. Jablonski, encouraging those who may have SAD to seek help and get diagnosed, and to begin treatment now before the winter season begins.
Dr. Jablonski’s own journey towards being diagnosed and treated for SAD began around 10 years ago, when he looked at himself in a family picture.
“I honestly hardly recognized the guy in the picture who was me,” he said while sharing his story, noting that over the years he had started doing the things he had told his patients not to do: eating more, drinking more, and not exercising enough.
From that moment he made the decision to get in better shape—shifting eventually from someone who saw running as the “worst kind of punishment” to competing in the Boston Marathon.
“Five years ago when I was the fittest I had probably ever been in my life, I was still unhappy,” he admitted. “I was still not where I needed to be.”
“Winters for me have always been difficult,” he explained, but he always saw “the light at the end” and made it through.
“About five years ago [in January] I was chairing a conference at the Banff Springs Hotel—perhaps the nicest hotel in Canada, a castle in the mountains—this was an event that I was looking forward to, I was living for this event because it was a big thing and it was going to be really really fun and good,” he recounted.
“I barely got through that weekend. I just could not handle it. It was a horrible time. I scared myself—most winters I could just pull myself up and get through, but this winter I just couldn’t do that any longer”
It was then he realized he would need to seek professional help—a difficult thing, he noted, considering that up to that point in his career he had only missed two days of work: once to have his appendix out, and another day when he broke his collarbone.
“So for me to sort of say, ‘You have a mental illness that you cannot defeat, that you actually have to seek treatment for’—honestly that decision to have to accept that or acknowledge that was probably the hardest thing I had to do in my life,” he said. “It was not easy, I’m a stubborn guy, and I got through it, I hated it.
“But I had to make that decision and it saved my life.”
Since being diagnosed, Dr. Jablonski has been working to dispel the stigma that surrounds mental illness—including being a part of the Mental Illness Awareness Week Campaign for 2010, when he was selected as one of five “regular” Canadians to stand up to the nation and tell their stories.
“We as Canadians need to hear stories like my stories. We need to hear the average Joe Blow Canadian standing up and saying ‘I have mental illness, I’ve struggled, I’ve been challenged by it, but I’m winning. Recovery is possible, we can do okay, we can have successful happy lives if we do the right thing,’” he stressed, pointing to his own wonderful family, his career as a doctor, as well as his artistic career working in theatre, acting, and as a singer-songwriter—and how he no longer dreads winter since beginning treatment for SAD.
While 15 to 50 percent of Canadians will “feel familiar with the winter blues,” an approximately 2.9 percent of Canadians are estimated to have SAD—or one million people, Dr. Jablonski noted.
Worldwide, statistics for SAD ranges anywhere from one to 10 percent depending on the country, he said, and there are currently several theories as to what causes it.
The frequency of SAD is correlated with latitude, he noted, and the farther away a person is from the equator, the more likely they are to have SAD.
This has been attributed to the greater variation in days and the light cycle that occur the farther away from the equator—with longer nights, and longer days during the winter and summer, he explained.
“If there’s a silver lining in a dark cloud with SAD, it’s that it’s reoccurring, but that reoccurrence is predictable,” said Dr. Jablonski. “Because it’s predictable, we can actually do something before it happens. There’s not many mental illnesses where we have that ability to predict things beforehand.”
Speaking about treatment, Dr. Jablonski pointing to the acronym he has created: SAD LAMP—or Scheduled, Anti-Depressants, Light/Lifestyle/Love/Laugh, Alternative, Medicines, and Psychologists.
“[SAD is] relatively easy to treat if we use all the tools we have,” he emphasized, noting that these tools can be used in whatever combination works for each individual person.
For example, as SAD is a true depressant disorder, there is a place for medication and antidepressant therapy, he explained.
Light therapy—when used properly­—can be “very very effective,” he said, noting that there have been 50 randomized control trials—“the best science trials we have”­—which have shown light therapy works for SAD.
“We call this tangential lighting or oblique lighting,” said Dr. Jablonski, while holding up one of the smaller new models of the rechargeable LED lights to show the audience.
The key to light therapy is having the light on for at least 30 minutes early every morning, he explained. Staring directly into the light isn’t required—so long as the person’s retina sees the light—meaning people can read or do other activities during this time period.
“How does this light work? Well to be honest, we don’t completely know,” Dr. Jablonski admitted, but they do know it works best in the morning as a way to trick the brain into thinking the days are longer.
One of the benefits of the light therapy is that response is quick—one to two weeks—if a person with SAD will benefit from it, Dr, Jablonski noted.
As well, people can begin using the light in October and November ahead of the fall and winter season.
And the lights which run about $175-200 should be covered by insurance companies if a person has a written prescription for them, he added.
Exercise is also one of the top things Dr. Jablonski recommended for treatment.
“I have run and cycled across the country. I believe in exercise,” he stressed, recommending two and-a-half hours of aerobic exercise a week for everyone—not just people diagnosed with SAD.
“Start little” he encouraged, for those who aren’t as active. “Start little—five minutes a day, 10 minutes a day, can you keep extending keep extending, and then you get there­—2 1/2 hours If you can do that you may gain huge benefits.”
Dr. Jablonski himself uses a combination of light therapy and exercise—setting up his bicycle indoors during the fall and winter months, and riding every morning with the special LED light on.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy was another option Dr. Jablonski highlighted, a tool that teaches a person how to deal with stress and help their mood­—for example how to not let one bad event “snowball” into affecting your whole mood for the day, and being able to catch the trigger before they happen.
“If you learn how to use this, it’s good for next winter,” he said, adding that this treatment can also be used for anxiety and depression.
Dr. Jablonski also touched upon the latest research when it comes to such tools like Omega-3 fatty fish oils, Sam-E, Vitamin D, St. John’s Wort, folic acid, for treating depression.
And with a holistic approach, Jablonski also said that “alternative” medicine also have a place in treating SAD
“Perhaps there’s not a lot of science and studies behind a lot of these things—it may work for one person, not for another—but in this world, whatever works, if it works for you you stick to it and you keep doing it,” he said about such things as meditation, exercise, yoga and acupuncture.
“A lot of these things that really work are things that help us with relaxation, help us control our own moods, our own anxiety.”
Those wishing to follow Dr. Jablonski’s journey, or find out more information on SAD, can visit www.sadnomore.ca