At this point in the year when we are all counting down the days until we can finally go on winter break, the weather outside becomes bitter and cold. The harsh reality of winter in Michigan means that we essentially say goodbye to the sun and warmth for a couple of months and live cooped up inside, left only to stare at the drab and dreary sky outside of our windows. Unfortunately for some, the realities of winter also consist of something called seasonal affective disorder.
Generally this disorder begins in late fall and continues throughout the winter, with the symptoms worsening as the season goes on. The specific cause is unknown, but scientists speculate that seasonal depression is caused by reduced sunlight disrupting our biological clocks and mood-related chemicals in our brains.
Andrea Wittenborn, an MSU associate professor and expert on depression, describes seasonal affective disorder as similar to chronic depression.
“People often feel down or sad, lose interest in activities that usually bring joy, have less energy, and feel hopeless. It can also have an effect on sleeping and eating. Sometimes the symptoms lead to conflict in relationships with friends and families; this is difficult because these relationships are also very helpful for healing. The severity of the symptoms varies from person to person, ranging from slightly irritating to very disabling,” Wittenborn said.
Seasonal depression is more common than you may think, occurring in approximately half a million people in the United States. If not treated, seasonal depression can cause serious problems. It can take a major toll on someone’s life, and if the symptoms can become serious, it can even lead to thoughts of self harm or suicide. In many cases, the symptoms are not as severe as this, but it can still disrupt people’s lives in major ways.
“When I get home and it’s dark outside, I don’t feel motivated to sit down and do homework or study,” Amelia Rudolph (10) said. “I end up spending a lot more time in bed and I’m not as productive because I don’t feel motivated when it’s not sunny.”
Luckily there are effective ways to treat this disorder, the three most common options being light therapy, medication, and psychotherapy.
Light therapy generally takes the form of a bright lamp meant to mimic natural outdoor light. Exposure to this lamp within the first hour of waking up can cause a change in chemicals linked to mood. This is one of the first-line treatments for seasonal affective disorder, and although research is limited, it appears to be effective. Rudolph shares her experience of owning a seasonal affective disorder lamp.
“When I get up in the morning I’ll turn [the lamp] on while I’m getting ready… I think it makes me feel more energized and more willing to get out of bed,” Rudolph said.
Cognitive behavior therapy can help change negative thoughts and behaviors as well as develop new ways to cope with stress and depression. Medication is used when the depression is more severe; however, this requires a prescription from a medical professional and it may be a more inaccessible option. Mindfulness exercises or meditation can also help.
“It is important to get help for seasonal affective disorder. A good place to start is to get as much natural sunlight as possible, sit near windows while inside, exercise, eat healthy, and minimize stress. Seeking therapy is an important part of the recovery process,” Wittenborn said.
For high schoolers, maintaining social connections is also important. Even though it might seem easiest to curl up in bed all day, spending time with people can help alleviate some of the symptoms of seasonal depression.
“I try to talk to my friends and I try to do activities that I enjoy,” Catherine Li (11) said.
Seasonal depression is a treatable illness, but a lack of credible information surrounding it can be dangerous. Students who are not educated on the subject might not know what it is and ignore the signs and symptoms. This could lead to a more severe case of depression, which increases the risk of suicide and self-harm.
Even if someone can recognize that they might have seasonal depression, they may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of dealing with this serious issue because they don’t have enough information.
In addition to this, people who jokingly say that they have seasonal depression are counterproductive and ultimately hurt the people who do suffer from this disorder. Just because someone doesn’t like winter or they are sad for one day doesn’t mean that they have seasonal depression. These sorts of comments trivialize the issue and make it harder for those who suffer every day from this type of depression.
Being educated on the subject is extremely important, as well as being compassionate towards those who may be dealing with depression.
Ultimately, it is of the utmost importance that we all make an effort to be good friends and supporters to one another, especially in the winter when some may be going through a hard time dealing with seasonal affective disorder.