Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder in College Students
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Note: If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (dial 988), available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential, and anyone can use this service.
- Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that usually begins in late fall.
- Students with seasonal depression may experience fatigue, sadness, and social withdrawal.
- Seasonal affective disorder correlates with diminishing daylight and a lack of sunlight.
- Common treatments include light therapy, cognitive-behavior therapy, and medication.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression commonly triggered by the diminishing daylight of winter. While found throughout the U.S., college students in the northern latitudes are more likely to develop this condition.
One study conducted in northern New England found that 13.2% of students surveyed experienced SAD.
In this guide, we'll cover the symptoms of SAD, the most common treatments, and how you can help yourself or someone else with seasonal depression.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD, also known as seasonal depression, is a type of depression that usually manifests in late fall or early winter and may continue for several months. For college students, the fall and winter season also brings a variety of academic and social stressors which can contribute to symptoms of depression.
Unlike the winter blues, which may lead to temporary sadness and lethargy, students with SAD experience more severe symptoms associated with depression, such as hopelessness, extreme fatigue, changes in appetite, and social isolation.
According to Mental Health America, about 5% of the U.S. population, or over 16 million people, experience SAD. Those living farther north have been found to have higher rates of the condition, with closer to 10% of Alaskans affected by SAD.
Furthermore, about 4 in 5 of those who exhibit symptoms of seasonal depression are women.
The Mayo Clinic reports that up to 44% of college students experience depression. If your depression tends to strike in late fall or early winter, it may be SAD.
What Are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The sooner students discover the cause of their symptoms, the better the outcome. Effective treatments can limit the severity of SAD, particularly when treatment starts before winter.
Keep a lookout for the following seasonal affective disorder symptoms in yourself, friends, or family members as fall turns to winter:
- Intense sadness and/or irritability
- Changes in appetite or eating habits and either weight gain or loss
- Feeling worthless or hopeless
- Difficulty concentrating
- Social withdrawal
- Thoughts of suicide
What Are the Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Diminishing daylight affects human bodies in many ways, impacting hormones and vital nutritional components. Genetics and other underlying conditions can also increase the risk of developing SAD.
The following list describes some of the most common causes associated with this disorder.
As the days grow shorter, reduced exposure to the sun can alter the brain's chemistry, affecting moods and behavior. Those who move from southern states to colleges in the north may also face sudden changes related to reduced daylight that can lead to SAD.
Circadian Rhythm Changes
Human bodies run on an internal clock called circadian rhythm. These 24-hour cycles carry out essential functions, such as prompting sleep and wakefulness.
The body resets these internal time clocks daily. However, limited daylight can throw off the body's circadian rhythm, disrupting the sleep-wake cycle and contributing to seasonal depression.
Morning sunlight filtering through the eyes prompts the release of serotonin, a brain chemical sometimes referred to as the "happy hormone." A drop in this neurotransmitter due to insufficient sunlight can trigger depression.
Darkness triggers the release of melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy. The reduction in daylight contributes to increased melatonin levels and the sleepiness and lethargy associated with seasonal depression.
Vitamin D Deficiency
When exposed to the sun, your skin produces vitamin D. This vitamin helps convert the amino acid tryptophan to serotonin. Students may be particularly susceptible to vitamin D deficiency due to late-night studying or socializing, resulting in irregular schedules, sleeping during the morning hours, and limited outdoor activity in the winter months.
What Are the Risk Factors for Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD tends to occur more often in women and young adults, with an average onset between 20 and 30 years of age. Additionally, the farther north you live, the more likely you are to experience this type of depression.
The following risk factors can increase college students' susceptibility to SAD.
Other Mental Health Conditions
MedlinePlus reports that SAD occurs in 10-20% of people with a major depressive disorder and about 25% of those with bipolar disorder. Students with bipolar II disorder, a mental health condition associated with recurrent depressive and hypomanic episodes, are particularly vulnerable.
Additionally, increased susceptibility can occur in students with ADHD and anxiety, panic, and/or eating disorders.
A family history of SAD or other forms of depression may increase a student's chances of developing this condition. People with relatives who experience schizophrenia may demonstrate a predisposition as well.
Patients diagnosed with seasonal depression also show an increased prevalence of close blood relatives with conditions like mood disorders and alcoholism.
Location and Weather
SAD is more prevalent among people who live farther north of the equator. These regions receive limited sunlight in the winter, intensifying the effects of shortened daylight.
Similarly, those who live in cloudy regions may be more susceptible to displaying symptoms of seasonal depression. This is particularly true for students who move from a southern, sunny climate to a northern state with shorter days in the winter months.
What Are the Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Light therapy is considered the standard treatment for seasonal affective disorder. By spending about 30 minutes in front of a 10,000-lux light box — usually first thing in the morning — students with SAD can replace missing daylight. This full-spectrum seasonal depression lamp mimics natural sunlight and affects brain chemicals.
The National Institutes of Health reports that light therapy can relieve seasonal depression symptoms after a few weeks of treatment in up to 70% of users. Some even report improvement after just one session.
Other treatments include cognitive behavior therapy. This therapy focuses on replacing negative thoughts about oneself, others, and situational stressors with positive ones. It also helps people cope by identifying activities they can enjoy and finding ways to reduce stress.
Medications that increase serotonin levels in the brain — called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) — can enhance a person's mood and limit the effects of SAD as well. The Federal Drug Administration has also approved bupropion, another type of antidepressant, for SAD.
Finally, setting a regular sleep schedule and routines, spending time outdoors and exercising, and maintaining a well-balanced diet may help relieve the symptoms associated with seasonal depression.
How to Get Help If You or Someone You Know Has Seasonal Depression
As with any form of depression, don't ignore SAD symptoms. While seasonal, its appearance each year can lead to reclusive tendencies and even thoughts of suicide.
If you or someone you know is displaying symptoms of SAD, consider getting help from one of the following sources:
- On-Campus Counseling: Take advantage of mental health services at your college. If not available, consider seeking counseling services from a local therapist specializing in SAD.
- Depression and Suicide Prevention Hotlines: If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (dial 988), available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential, and anyone can use this service. Students can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
A person experiencing symptoms of SAD should seek the help of a trained healthcare provider. Other biological diseases, such as hypoglycemia and hypothyroidism, may cause similar symptoms and should be ruled out.
Frequently Asked Questions About Seasonal Depression
Is seasonal depression real?
Yes. Seasonal depression usually occurs in the late fall and early winter, correlating with changing seasons and reduced daylight. Limited sunlight, which disrupts the body's circadian rhythm and hormones, may cause or exacerbate SAD symptoms.
SAD affects about 5% of the U.S. population. Those living at higher latitudes and in cloudy climates experience greater susceptibility. Seasonal depression symptoms include oversleeping, social withdrawal, feelings of hopelessness, and difficulty concentrating.
When does seasonal depression start?
Most seasonal depression symptoms start in the late fall or early winter as the days shorten, manifesting around the same time every year. Rarely, some forms of the condition may occur in late spring or early summer.
Most people develop SAD between the ages of 20 and 30, though many can remember their earliest symptoms starting long before their clinical diagnosis. A diagnosis of SAD means students must have symptoms of major depression that reoccur during specific months of the year.
Can you develop seasonal depression in the summer?
Though uncommon, some people experience summer seasonal depression. This type of seasonal depression usually begins in the late spring or early summer and ends in the fall.
A few symptoms specific to summer-onset SAD include difficulty sleeping and loss of appetite with associated weight reduction. Students may also experience increased anxiety or agitation.
How long does seasonal depression last?
Seasonal depression usually lasts about four months. It typically begins in the late fall and lasts through winter. Students in the U.S. often experience the greatest effects in January and February.
If you or someone you know exhibits symptoms of SAD, get help right away. While treatment takes time, some forms of therapy, such as light boxes, can produce significant improvement in just a few weeks.
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