As temperatures drop and days get shorter, Ohio State mental health professionals advise students to watch for signs of seasonal depression.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a lifelong type of depression related to changes in the season, especially fall and winter, Ohio State professor of clinical psychology Theodore Beauchaine said.
Denise Deschenes, Ohio State senior staff psychiatrist at the Counseling and Consultation Service, said symptoms can range from mild to severe.
Mild symptoms can include feelings of depression, oversleeping, appetite changes, weight gain, low energy, trouble concentrating and studying, and loss of interest in activities that are usually enjoyable. Severe symptoms include feeling hopeless, worthless or suicidal, which affect 5 to 10 percent of the population, Deschenes said.
Individuals might have SAD if depression and any of these other symptoms occurred during the past two fall and winter seasons but improved during the spring and summer, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Deschenes said SAD usually occurs during a person’s 20s and it can run in families regardless of race or culture. It also affects more women than men.
SAD is thought to be caused by a decrease in serotonin, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter, or an increase of melatonin, a hormone produced in the brain that helps the body know when it is time to sleep, when days get shorter and the body receives less sunlight. Deschenes said this causes the body to want to go into “hibernation mode.”
Instead of waiting for spring break sunshine to alleviate symptoms, Deschenes said there are a few lifestyle changes that those who are affected can implement right away, such as eating well, not drinking alcohol or doing drugs, exercising outdoors, trying not to be isolated from friends and practicing better self-care.
“One of the biggest things that can help all around is making sure you get enough sleep, especially students, because when people don’t sleep, their concentration goes down and anxiety can go up,” Deschenes said.
Beauchaine also suggested seeking help and treatment from a psychologist or psychiatrist to cope with depression during winter months.
“One effective treatment for seasonal affective disorder is a light box,” Beauchaine said. “It’s a high-intensity light made specifically to generate what light and wavelengths the sun generates.”
He said placing a light box on a desk or table can be helpful in reducing SAD symptoms, especially for students who need to be productive.
CCS offers counseling services and daily drop-in workshops, which focus on topics such as managing stress and decreasing anxiety. There is also an app, OSUCCS, that offers positive messaging, calming features and other relaxation techniques.
“[SAD] won’t go away by itself,” Beauchaine said. “It’s nothing to be minimized.”