By Arthur Mondale, Pentagram Staff WriterDecember 17, 2015
Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series of articles designed to generate awareness and provide resources for people suffering from seasonal affective disorder and depression.
The holiday season can invoke memories in service members, both joyful and sorrowful. Some of these can be hazardous to a person's mental and physical health.
Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall U.S. Army Chaplain Fred Wendel's mother died in 1996, a week before Thanksgiving. Over the next seven years, he said the holiday season had less to do with high spirits, optimism and being merry and was more of an annual cycle of grief, loss, sadness and depression.
"Let's just get this dang holiday season over with and get to Jan. 2," Maj. Wendel said he mentally repeated to himself like clockwork over the next seven years: the week prior to Thanksgiving Day until the day after New Year's.
A man of faith for three decades, Wendel said he also shouldered having to uplift and minister to others, while he carried the weight of "expectations" associated with being a high-ranking priest.
"What I presented on the outside and what I felt on the inside didn't match," Wendel said. "I was so low sometimes I struggled to put on a front that I felt I had to, to get the job done."
Wendel also described the physical toll the holidays took on him. He said the weariness felt as if he had "dug 20 ditches."
Today, Wendel said he's emotionally stronger and has since recovered, but he advises the base populace that if a priest with a "very strong faith" can struggle with the toxic effects of grief and depression, so can others.
"Talking to another person-counselor, psychologist, chaplain, minister, priest, rabbi-just talking to another person can help you get it out," Wendel said. "Just reach out. None of us have it all together."
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and depression
Chaplains at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall don't often use the term seasonal affective disorder. SAD is the clinical term for a form of winter depression that is the result of the lack of sunlight and the isolation people experience during the colder months, according to Dr. Elspeth
Cameron Ritchie, chief of mental health at the Washington, D.C., Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
"Seasonal affective disorder is one variant of depression," Ritchie said. "Sad mood, concentration, lack of energy, a change in appetite and a lack of motivation" are a range of symptoms, Ritchie said.
Symptoms of depression include hypersomnia (excessive tiredness), and insomnia (difficulty sleeping) according to U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Showalter, chief of Behavioral Health at Andrew Rader U.S. Army Health Clinic.
"We focus more on the symptoms of depression," he said. "A person needs two consecutive years of depression beginning at a particular season and lifting at a particular season, spanning over two years to meet diagnostic criteria for seasonal affective disorder. We would need to see a demonstrated pattern of seasonal onset."
And according to both Showalter and Ritchie, stress is a risk factor, as detailed by installation chaplains.
"Typically around the holidays I see a spike in stress, overall stress-workplace and family stress," said U.S. Navy Lt. Chad Goddard, chaplain for Headquarters and Service Battalion on the Henderson Hall portion of JBM-HH. "Stress in the home leads to stress in the workplace and vice versa."
Additionally, chaplains at JBMHH told the Pentagram they experience a spike in counseling following the holidays that is both financial and relational in nature. Suicidal ideations are also common during and after the holidays in light of financial and relational issues.
A place of confidentiality
Base chaplains make referrals to base resources for service members to get additional help, if a service member wants it.
"We are the distribution center, the first place people should come to is in here [chaplain's office]," Goddard said. "They could walk in and spill their guts all over my office."
Ignorance could be one reason more service members suffering from depression don't seek counsel from base chaplains, but according to JBM-HH chaplains, trust is another.
Chaplains are busy working to earn service members' trust outside the confines of installation chapels and on deployments.
"Earning that trust takes a while," Goddard said. "We want to keep an eye on service members who are having a hard time financially, and any that have a special family dynamic or exceptional family member."
Additionally, base chaplains and their staff agree the days leading up to the start of 2016 should serve as a time for both self-examination and reflection.
"If service members aren't feeling optimistic or looking forward to anything that's a pretty clear sign of depression," said U.S. Navy Petty officer 1st Class Adam Blackmon, the religious programs specialist at Henderson Hall. "If people notice someone else feeling that way, encourage them to talk to somebody."
Spirituality and faith
"Some folks need faith in something, whether it's God or something else," Goddard said.
Base chaplains and their staff that spoke with the Pentagram agree there is a difference between spirituality and faith. They also said they believe more emphasis should be placed on people's commitment to something outside of themselves.
"If people would say 'What I'm doing is being done for the good of my county, or my family' that could give people strength to persevere beyond their current hardships," Blackmon said.
"When a person gets the feeling that 'I'm involved in something bigger than myself,' that can be a way to give meaning to your suffering."
Wendel said chaplains can't force religion, spirituality or ideals on members of the base populace. But there's a need for support here that military chaplains want to meet, regardless of the time of year or season. "I want people to be less grounded in things and make decisions that help them be better people.
To see the importance of relationships and see the bigger picture of life," Wendel said. "That's what I hope for people."
For chaplain support, call JBM-HH religious services at 703-696-6635. For emergencies call 202-236-4901.