Ditching SADness: The Lowdown on the “Winter Blues”

As students push through the final weeks of the spring semester, many find it difficult to muster the motivation to do their best work and engage with the campus community. Many blame burnout and senioritis, but fail to consider the impact of months of plunging temperatures, snow and darkness on their mood and mental health.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons and is estimated to affect 10 million Americans; another 10-20 percent may have a mild form. Onset of symptoms typically starts in the late fall and early winter and go away during the spring and summer— although depressive episodes linked to the summer can occur, they are much less common than winter episodes of SAD.

“The winter months have a profound effect on mood and emotion and can wreak havoc on mental health,” said fourth-year psychology major Maya Stang. “When it’s dark out people may become more tired or unproductive, causing people to become sad or agitated when they may not even know why. Because it gets so cold out, many people avoid going outside altogether; humans need fresh air and sunlight to thrive.”

Stang believes winter weather has a tremendous impact on our campus community from November until well into the spring season. 

“Less activities take place outside and people tend to not hangout around campus because it’s simply too cold,” she said. “This can cause a lack of school spirit during these months and even a loss in a sense of community.”

SAD is a type of depression displaying a recurring seasonal pattern. To be diagnosed, an individual must meet full criteria for major depression coinciding with specific seasons for at least two years. According to psychology chair Jonathan Raskin, SAD is not an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), but when mental health professionals diagnose major depressive disorder, they can specify if it has a seasonal pattern or not.

Along with the symptoms of depression, symptoms concurrent with the winter pattern of SAD include low energy, hypersomnia, overeating, weight gain, craving for carbohydrates and social withdrawal. The less frequently appearing summer pattern of symptoms includes poor appetite with associated weight loss, insomnia, agitation, restlessness, anxiety and episodes of violent behavior.

SAD occurs more frequently the farther north or south an individual lives from the equator. For example, one percent of those who live in Florida and nine percent of those who live in New England or Alaska suffer from SAD, according to the National Institute for Mental Health.

Women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with SAD and onset typically occurs between ages 18 to 30. SAD has even been reported in children and teens. It is also more likely to occur in individuals with either family or personal history of other types of depression.

Some common treatments include medication (typically Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), light therapy, psychotherapy and vitamin D supplements.

Winter months, however, can have a tremendous impact even on individuals who are not diagnosed with SAD. Sunlight and darkness trigger the release of hormones in the brain. Exposure to sunlight increases the brain’s release of serotonin, a hormone associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel calm and focused. Darker lighting triggers the brain to produce melatonin, the hormone associated with sleep. People diagnosed with SAD are believed to have particular trouble regulating these hormones.

Exposure to sunlight also increases production of vitamin D. One study showed that getting five to 15 minutes of sunlight on the hands, arms and face two to three times a week is enough to increase bone health. Experts also think exposure to sunlight may help prevent certain types of cancers including colon cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer and helps to treat the following skin conditions: psoriasis, eczema, jaundice and acne and conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, inflammatory bowel disease and thyroiditis.

Stang said she would like to see an increased effort from the administration to help students during these winter months. She also added that she would like to see better staffing at the counseling center so that students are able to speak with professionals before they have reached the point of immediate crisis.

“During finals, the school does an amazing job at having activities and food for students to help with the stress,” she said. “I would like to see some activities done during the winter months similar to these to brighten students’ days.”

Stang added that individuals in the campus community should reach out to those who may be truggling and encourage them to seek help.

“Spring time does not mean that students are in the clear,” she said. “The highest suicide rates are in the spring so even though the weather is improving, that does not mean that people’s mental health follows that same trend. If you know a friend who is struggling with mood or mental health issues, please reach out to them in the spring. Let them know that they are not alone and help is available.”

If you or someone you know may be struggling please do not hesitate to visit the Psychological Counseling Center on campus Monday-Friday between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. or contact them at 845-257-2920.