Seasonal Affective Disorder causes depression for many Minnesotans

Winter weather brings more than driving hardships. Reduced exposure to sunlight causes some to experience seasonal depression. Photo credit: Benjamin Pecka

The end of a warm, lively summer means the inevitable beginning of the years most dreary and uneventful seasons: fall and winter. While some welcome these seasons and associate them with cozy fireplaces, hearty comfort food and whimsical memories of Christmas time, others dread and associate it with a depression triggered by lackluster days and seemingly endless grey months.

Seasonal depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, is a type of depression linked to the changing of seasons. Unlike regular clinical depression, SAD begins in the fall and carries over into the winter months with some rare cases occurring in the summer.

While people of older age do experience this type of depression, it is college students and those in their late teens who are affected the most. According to a study done by Bates College Health Center, SAD is most commonly found amongst students attending Midwestern and Northeastern colleges, with 5-13 percent of the student body reporting increased levels of depression during the winter months.

The cause of seasonal depression isn’t only due to the bitter cold, dormant trees and overcast skies. It’s also a biological chemical change that clinical social worker Hilary Katz of Equilibria Psychological Consultation Services argues is also at play. According to her, it’s the lack of sun exposure in the winter, the decrease in certain body’s chemicals such as oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine, and increased levels of melatonin that together aid in the initiation of SAD.

For students, there are other factors to also consider. By the time the numbing months of winter arrive, students are well into the fall semester. They’ve been juggling homework, exams, jobs and extracurricular activities along with home life. This pressure, accompanied with the body’s new chemical imbalance and lack of sun exposure can prove to be both mentally and physically paralyzing.

In a nationwide survey done by The National Institute of Mental Health in 2011, 30 percent of college students reported feeling “so depressed it was difficult to function” in the winter months.

As with any type of depression, it’s important to take signs and symptoms of SAD seriously so as to avoid future problems. Amongst many symptoms to look for are losing interest in activities you once enjoyed, having low energy, feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty, oversleeping and experiencing changes in your appetite. Ignoring these signs can lead to social withdrawal, substance abuse, anxiety and in some cases suicide.

On a positive note, there are things students and others can do to help combat seasonal depression. Adding color to your dorm room and investing in light therapy lamps can help in boosting one’s mood. Exercising regularly can also help. According to a study conducted by the Department of Psychiatric and Behavioral Sciences, the effects of exercise in patients seems generally comparable with patients receiving antidepressant medications. Try exercising with friends, too. Staying socially active is crucial in maintaining a student’s mental condition, especially when it’s someone you have past positive experiences with.

If or when your attempts at suppressing your depression are unsuccessful, it’s best to consult your doctor. You can also visit MCTC’s Student Health Clinic located on the third floor of the H Building in room H.3400. Amongst the clinic’s staff is a licensed psychologist for counseling and psychotherapy and an advanced practice registered nurse for medication management. It should also be known that most services are available at no additional cost to students and health insurance isn’t required to utilize its services.

Hopefully none of the symptoms relate to you, but if they do seek out the necessary steps and help to ensure both a healthy life and a healthy school year.

1 Comment

  1. A great article! Sunlight is absolutely essential for optimal mood, and it is also essential to optimal health. Here are a few facts about our friend the sun:
    Women who actively seek the sun have half the risk of death compared to those who avoid the sun.
    •A Spanish study shows that women who seek the sun have one-eleventh the hip-fracture risk as those who avoid sun.
    •Men who work outdoors have half the risk of melanoma as those who work indoors.
    •Women who avoid the sun have 10-times the risk of breast cancer as those who embrace the sun.
    •Women who sunbathe regularly have half the risk of death during a 20-year period compared to those who stay indoors.
    •Sun exposure increases nitric oxide production, which leads to a decrease in heart disease risk.
    •Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is essential to human survival, and sun exposure is the only natural way to obtain it. Sunbathing can produce up to 20,000 units of vitamin D in 20 minutes of whole-body exposure around noon
    •Sun exposure dramatically improves mood through the production of serotonin and endorphin.
    Sun exposure increases the production of BDNF, which is vital to human health.
    For more information: http://sunlightinstitute.org/

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