InFocus: Winter blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder causes depression during winter months

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By Mackenzie Clark.

Many of us dread trudging through ice and snow in the winter months, but for some, the pains of winter go much deeper.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a specifier of depression that affects people generally in the winter months and appears to be caused primarily by lack of sunlight. In rare cases, it presents during summer instead.

“Melatonin is like the precursor to serotonin in our body, and then sunlight appears to be what the catalyst is into making that into serotonin,” said Susie Sympson, adjunct professor of psychology.

According to the National Institute of Health, symptoms of SAD usually tend to increase starting in late fall and continue until springtime. They include increased eating and sleeping, lack of energy, loss of interest in activities and ability to concentrate, and the general irritability and unhappiness commonly associated with depression. These symptoms need to have been present only during a certain season for at least two years to be decidedly diagnosed as SAD.

Environmental causes that may occur in winter, however, do not qualify the depression as SAD.

“If people work in construction and every winter they’re laid off, and then depression follows that, that doesn’t really count as Seasonal Affective Disorder because it has some other cause,” Sympson said. “Somebody who, you know, gets depressed when their kids go away to school in the winter, that wouldn’t count.”

Sunlight is a huge factor in SAD, and current research offers little explanation for why it can occur for some during summer months instead of winter.

“A lot of people who have a very low level of vitamin D, which is affected by sunlight, can be prone to SAD,” Debby Stout-Miller, counselor, said.

In very high or very low latitudes where there is less sunlight year-round, or in very rainy climates, SAD is much more common. Sympson said she has known people who have moved from Seattle, for example, because the climate was causing them to be very depressed.

SAD is typically combated with three treatments: full spectrum light, talk therapy and antidepressants.

“Originally they started out treating SAD with these visors, and they wore these visors so many hours a day, and the visors were full spectrum light that shined on the eyes and kind of simulated the lack of light,” Sympson said.

Thanks to modern technology, it’s much easier for patients to access full spectrum light treatment. Full spectrum light bulbs are available in many stores, so people can change a bulb in a lamp in their home and get that treatment while they’re doing their day-to-day activities.

“I know people who swear by their light,” Sympson said. “When they travel, they have a travel light that they take with them because they’ve found that it really does make a difference.”

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are antidepressants that can help with the low levels of serotonin that cause depression.

“[Antidepressants] are often prescribed because it is a depression, and depending on the severity of the symptoms they may prescribe things like Prozac, or Lexapro, or Paxil; the SSRIs,” Stout-Miller said.

Antidepressants don’t have to be taken year-round to be affective against SAD.

“I’ve actually had some students who will start taking antidepressant drugs in October to help them prepare for that and as it starts to remit in the spring they will taper off of that,” Sympson said.

There are many resources to help those affected by SAD both on and off campus.

“Certainly we’re here to talk with students, and then we can also refer them to a therapist to have it further evaluated,” Stout-Miller said.

The counseling center has a student assistance program in place.

“We’ll do the initial intake process with [the student], we’ll find out what the presenting issue is and do the initial screening, and then if it’s determined they should probably be at a place outside of here for more long-range help, we’ll go ahead and contact Saint Luke’s Hospital,” Jeff Anderson, counselor, said.

Then the student can take the intake form with them to their appointment, and Saint Luke’s will provide up to five sessions free of cost. If more help is needed, the therapists there can help find assistance at low or no cost.

“We have a great relationship with Saint Luke’s, and they do a wonderful job with our students. They give us immediate feedback and we have the perfect partnership, in my view,” Anderson said. “It’s a tremendous resource for the students.”

Both the counseling office and Sympson, also the sponsor of Active Minds on campus, encourage anyone in need of help to seek it.

“If [students] do think they suffer from it they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help because it could be as simple as having that full spectrum light for a few hours a day,” she said.

Anyone who would like more information about SAD or other mental health disorders can contact the counseling center or attend an Active Minds meeting, noon on Fridays in CC 234.

Contact Mackenzie Clark, features editor, at mclark68@jccc.edu.

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