Seasonal depression, lying dormant for almost three quarters of the year. According to Cleveland Clinic, SAD is triggered by a change in seasons, most commonly beginning in late fall. Symptoms can include lack of energy, loss of interest in usual activities, oversleeping, sensitivity to rejection, social withdrawal and decreased ability to focus or concentrate. 

As stated by Johns Hopkins Medicine, winter’s shorter days and therefore less daylight, triggers a chemical change in the brain leading to symptoms of depression. This change creates an environment that elicits individuals to stay inside and isolate themselves. Melatonin, a sleep related hormone, also acts as a plausible cause or trigger for SAD. The body naturally produces more melatonin with darkness, which causes one to oversleep and establishes a constant feeling of drowsiness. Stated in the New York Times, with SAD, melatonin peaks later, increasing the difficulty to wake up. Because one cannot reach full “awakeness” until later in the day, falling asleep also becomes more challenging, leading to insomnia and inadequate sleep. Dr. Kathryn Roecklein, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, also suggests that the negative anticipation of shorter days can combine with biological effects to create a self fulfilling prophecy. As a whole, scientific evidence suggests that in the winter, levels of light fall so far below a relative threshold that it can lead to emotional imbalance, acting as the major root to the disorder.

Millions of individuals in the Untied States suffer with SAD every year. Photo: Getty Images

According to University of Utah Healthcare, SAD affects an estimated ten million people living in the U.S, almost four times more common in women than men. With this, the New York Times indicates that this percentage of people affected lies greatly within the barriers of geography, stating that location can facilitate SAD. For example, a person living in Connecticut may be more susceptible to SAD than someone living in Florida. Connecticut undergoes a drastic change from sunny to gloomy whereas Florida maintains its humid and warm climate year round.Yale University, located in Connecticut, exists as a prime example of a SAD inflicted community. As stated by the Yale Daily News, Dr. Paul Desan, director of the Winter Depression Research Clinic at the Yale School of Medicine, studies SAD with a research group every year. “[SAD is] a big public health problem,” Dr. Desan told the News. “People have seasonal mood changes relatively commonly, other symptoms as well, and there’s not much understanding or information that is out there.” Contrastingly, Jewel Moore, who serves as a first-year counselor in Trumbull College, attributes SAD to ‘midterm season,’ claiming that the stress behind exams facilitates this type of seasonal depression.  

 In reference to Moore’s comment, SAD does target a specific age group: young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 years old. According to director of communications at Albany Medical College Sue Ford, medical students are experiencing, “…reduced energy, sleep disturbances, and depressed mood. Called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or more commonly known as “winter blues”, this subtype of depression is relatively common among those in their 20s, including busy medical students who are already facing the rigors of academic and professional obligations.” However, professor of psychological science and a clinical psychologist at the University of Vermont Kelly Rohan states that, “one big, common misconception about SAD is that it’s just the ‘winter blues.’ ” Rohan goes on to say SAD is much more serious, a form of clinical depression that can linger with a change in seasons.

The underlying question remains the same: How does one “cure” SAD? While SAD treatments can consist of antidepressants and cognitive behavior therapy, commonly used to treat major depression, Dr. Desan recognizes the succuss found in light box therapy. According to Dr. Desan and his research group at Yale, their research suggests that about 80 percent of people will see benefits from doing daily bright light therapy for about half an hour before 8 a.m. “People are getting outside less and are less exposed to natural light,” Dr. Desan said. “Exposure to bright light early in the morning is the most important factor in affecting the circadian rhythm system. … Our homes tend to be dimmer than offices, and offices of course are dimmer than outside.” Despite this research, according to Dr. Desan, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not set standards for lights treating SAD, potentially leading to many consumers pursuing ineffective therapies. Medical student Mac Perlman continues to promote light therapy saying that, “Studies have shown that bright light therapy (BLT) is effective in treating mild to moderate symptoms of SAD,” said Perlman. “At $25-35, BLT lamps are an affordable, high value, low risk and efficient means to treat these symptoms. We think it would be beneficial for all medical schools to provide access to BLT to students.” 

With COVID-19, SAD has become an even larger problem than before, according to Dr. Desan. “We’re seeing across all of our patient mental health clinics an increase in distress and number of visits.” Dr. Desan said lifestyle changes brought on by COVID-19 might also be a factor. “The other thing that we’re noticing is when people are home a lot, they don’t get up in the morning and get exposed to bright light. Consequently, I think seasonal factors are stronger,” he said.

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