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Seasonal Sadness in the Changing Arctic

The long dark months take a toll on Northerners, but seemingly unrelated changes can help.
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A mid-afternoon Arctic sunset. (Photo: Eva Holland)

A mid-afternoon Arctic sunset. (Photo: Eva Holland)

The drive north from my home in Whitehorse to Inuvik is a long one: You have to go up the North Klondike Highway for 330 miles to Dawson City, and then north again up the Dempster Highway—the only Canadian road that crosses the Arctic Circle—for another 480 miles before finally landing in Inuvik, the main settlement in the Northwest Territories' MacKenzie River delta.

Because of the town's position north of the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn't rise at all in Inuvik for a few weeks each year, from roughly early December to early January. I had come to town to experience this famous (or infamous) 24-hour darkness. I wanted to know what it felt like to go through days lit only by the electric glow of headlights and the flicker of a television screen through an undressed window.

But alas, I was in for a letdown. Turns out, while the sun doesn't ever break the horizon during those weeks, it does hover just out of sight beyond the curve of the Earth, its light spilling over and brightening the Arctic sky for a few hours each day. In effect, it's like an extended twilight-sunrise-sunset-twilight cycle in between the 18 hours or so of pure darkness. So while there was no direct sunlight, and Inuvik was certainly darker than Whitehorse, it wasn't perpetually black.

Still, the Canadian North gets more than its share of winter darkness: Here in Whitehorse, at winter solstice, the sun rises around 10:30 a.m. and sets maybe four and a half, five hours later. That's a short day. Unsurprisingly, northerners get hit hard with seasonal depression, clinically known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

"When the light starts to really drop off, so maybe just after Halloween, we start to see an influx of clients."

Mark Kelly is the co-director of Northern Counselling and Therapeutic Services, which operates a network of 23 therapists across all three territories. Kelly doesn't like to get hung up on formal diagnoses of SAD, since it often goes clinically undiagnosed. But after a decade and a half in the North, he can recognize a pattern of depression when he sees one.

"When the light starts to really drop off, so maybe just after Halloween—and here in Whitehorse and Watson Lake we start to see permanent snow around that time—we start to see an influx of clients," he says. "Until about the middle of December. And then we stop seeing client intakes—very few."

That drop-off seems counter-intuitive to a lot of people. It's the darkest, and often the coldest, time of year. On top of that, the holidays can often be hard on people. But, Kelly says, "we don't see people reaching out at that time. Yes, people may be suffering, but they're not reaching out for help. That's probably because they're in the darkness and the cold, and they're suffering. They're hurting at that time of year."

To tackle seasonal depression, Kelly recommends "the same things we offer to people suffering from trauma: good, healthy interactions with healthy, loving people, [who] you care deeply about—specifically kids; getting plenty of exercise; eating a healthy diet." Ideally, people will manage to get out and exercise during the limited daylight hours (in Whitehorse, many office-based employers allow for extended lunch breaks, to let people sneak in a quick game of pond hockey or a loop around the cross-country ski trails while the sun is shining).

I asked Kelly about the light boxes that have become popular in recent years. "I don't recommend them or discourage them," he says, then adds drily: "I'm of the opinion that the placebo effect is fabulous."

But really, people need to figure out what works for them, and stick to it. "Whatever works! Minus things like drugs and alcohol, and food consumption—those things actually have a temporary effect," Kelly says. "Taking those aside, whatever makes you feel better."

Like many people, I know this stuff: Getting off the couch and actually implementing a gym regimen, or regular walks in the brief daylight, or making healthy home-cooked meals in my daily life, is the problem. But what interested me most about talking to Kelly is the idea that battling seasonal depression is getting easier in some parts of the North—the parts that are changing the fastest.

Take my own home, Whitehorse, for example. It's a lot easier to eat well, one of Kelly's key recommendations, when you have access to a well-stocked grocery store—and that didn't used to be the case here. An old roommate of mine who grew up here told me that in her childhood, she only remembered seeing apples and oranges, and occasionally bananas, in the fruit section at the grocery store. And Mark Kelly, too, remembers seeing a lot of empty shelves in stores: If, say, the dairy truck failed to make it up the lone highway into the territory, then there was no dairy. These days, though, we have many more choices—the full array of fresh fruits and vegetables, basically—and better supply lines for the essentials. "You can pretty much guarantee there'll always be milk and eggs at every store," Kelly says.

Improved infrastructure has also helped the battle against seasonal depression: These days, Whitehorse has an enviable city-owned indoor sports and recreation facility, the Canada Games Centre; a network of trails for cross-country skiing, fat-biking, walking, or snowshoeing; and outdoor hockey rinks in most neighborhoods. And with the growth of coffee shop culture, residents have more options to get out and socialize—another critical way to combat SAD—without heading to the bar. (Yukoners are consistently tops in Canada for per capita alcohol spending, with the other two territories close behind.)

It was fascinating to realize that many of the changes I've seen in my six-plus years here—more and better supermarket options, improving infrastructure for sports and recreation, a growing café and restaurant scene—could have an unintended positive impact on Yukoners' mental health.

The catch? These changes are occurring mainly in the "big cities" of the north: Whitehorse in the Yukon, Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, and (to a lesser extent, because it's a fly-in community) Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut. Outside those centers, seemingly simple solutions to seasonal depression—eating right, getting out of the house to socialize, exercising during daylight hours—remain a greater challenge.

In places like Inuvik and its delta neighbors—Aklavik, Tuktoyaktuk, Tsiigehtchic, and Fort McPherson—seasonal depression is likely to stick around, even if that famous Arctic 24-hour darkness isn't quite all it's cracked up to be.