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Transition into Winter Can Bring Additional Mental Stress for Disabled People

older woman in a wheelchair with red hair being helped by a younger woman, both wearing warm coats

FluxFactory / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Winter, like any seasonal change, can create additional mental health barriers for disabled people.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder is a condition experts are paying attention to this time of year.
  • Just because winter doesn’t bring ice and snow in your particular climate doesn’t mean it won’t create complications for those with disabilities.

Change isn’t easy, regardless of what time of year it is, but the shift into the winter months can be particularly harsh. We cling to consistency, especially when it comes to our personal strategies for mental health.

Unfortunately, as seasons change, choice is taken out of our hands. For disabled people, that shift can have additional psychological impacts.

Here Comes the SAD

One common concern during the winter months is seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Katlyn Richardson, a Canadian disability advocate, says that as the calendar turns to the winter months they change the light levels in their house and switch to using a mobility aid. 

“One of the things I started doing was keeping brighter lights in my house. Not like the seasonal effectiveness lights that you can get that are supposed to mimic sunlight, but just brighter light bulbs that I can keep on and it makes inside feel brighter. I find that helps me mentally meet my body physically. So there's not as big of a disconnect.”

Lauren Cook, PsyD.

[The question is] how can we cope with what is in a way that helps us find safety as we can while still taking an honest look at the situation?

— Lauren Cook, PsyD.

Lighting and its relation to conditions like depression is a link often seen by practitioners such as Dr. Faisal Tai. MD. The Houston-based psychiatrist says that his patients, in his case largely seniors,  are often facing a light-based barrier amongst other concerns like a lack of mobility and access to social programs. He says it's something disabled people, and the wider population, should be mindful of.

“…Depression is certainly higher [during this time period]. Part of it is because obviously, the light being diminished during these months, the colder weather. Because of the colder weather, there's less social activities, that certainly worsens something like depression. And so certainly watching out for some of those things would be vital in these coming months,” says Tai.

It's Not Just About the Weather

For Dr. Kirstin Bone PhD,  each seasonal shift means a different set of variables that she has to contend with. One of which, she says, is society’s approach to disabled people.

“Disability does impact how we experience seasons, I think, really profoundly and in ways that communally I don't think we recognize as much because society is built in such a way that disabled people are encouraged to be invisible.”

For Bone, because of a genetic condition that increases the speed of her skin’s growth, summer means weighing whether she’s at risk of overheating during regular activities.

“As soon as the temperatures start getting warm, I kind of vanish from public spheres in a lot of ways. Just because, since I can't sweat, heat builds up in my body. And I have to be really, really careful because there's no way for my body to let that heat out.”

On the other hand, in the winter, she says she’s more susceptible to sickness from those around her. Also, some of her other disabilities impact her sleep even when her baseline level of comfort with engaging with the world increases as the last portion of the year rolls around. 

“Moving into winter is really exciting for me because I finally get to go outside and do things. But it comes with a lot of pain physically because of my joints and my skin, but also, you know, weighing the risks of, ‘What am I going to get sick from?’”

Kirstin Bone, PhD.

I think the biggest piece of advice I would give is to understand that your body, your mind does not move in a way that belongs to anyone else.

— Kirstin Bone, PhD.

Dr Lauren Cook, PsyD., says that while we often focus on things like seasonal weather changes, climate shifts—especially ones leading to increases in natural disasters—can also have a disproportionate impact on disabled people. 

“I live here in California, it's fire season right now, And that can really lead to a lot of anxiety for folks, but especially for folks living with disabilities, both visible and invisible. Take, for example, a fire evacuation, right? That can happen so quickly and those [same disabled] folks especially can experience a heightened level of anxiety of, ‘Oh, my goodness, how am I going to get all my belongings [and] make sure I get out safely?”

And that’s without discussing the biggest hurdle currently facing the disability community: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

How to Cope

Cook says that COVID’s presence in this winter season brings with it “anticipatory anxiety” and that turning towards the self can be one way to alleviate barriers—whether they come from symptoms or other challenges like microaggressions from ignorant people in your circles. 

“[The question is] how can we cope with what is in a way that helps us find safety as we can while still taking an honest look at the situation?…Sometimes it can be really healing and restorative to have an honest conversation with someone who is coming from that privileged lens of not realizing how someone may be still very much a greater risk. Other times that work is the protection of the self and knowing you know what, I'm going to let this one go and take care of myself and my own healing through this process,” says Cook.

Richardson says that fears related to COVID have weighed heavily on their family unit. 

“It's a lot of worrying on if I'm going to have to worry about isolating because say, like, myself, or my partner comes down with COVID. And then, if one of us gets COVID, what are going to be the effects later on? And now that it's colder, everyone's wanting to be inside, so I just know that there's a lot more risk.”

Tai says that his advice is to seek out professional help before you feel yourself sliding. 

“It doesn't hurt that you have someone looking out for you. Because most of the time, what happens is people are not [a]  very good judge of when they need help. And oftentimes by the time they reach out to someone, and they're able to actually get in to see a provider, it's often too late.”

Bone’s advice is to start with the self and to hold onto the fact that, at least to some extent, you have control. 

“I think the biggest piece of advice I would give is to understand that your body, your mind does not move in a way that belongs to anyone else. Your experiences, your specific body-mind really shapes how you move through your world, and your communities, and your different spheres of influence. And to be patient with that and to understand what works for you, rather than trying to worry about expectations other people may have for you.”

What This Means For You

If you're disabled and going through a winter slump, know that you are not alone. If you do not identify with disability, understand that disabled people don't just have symptom spikes when the temperature drops, or when the daylight ebbs away. Those barriers can compound if support systems aren't willing to adapt to the seasons.

By John Loeppky
John Loeppky is a freelance journalist based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, who has written about disability and health for outlets of all kinds.