Understanding Seasonal Depression as it Looms throughout Winter Months

Snowfall+at+the+downtown+Salt+Lake+City+on+a+Christmas+night+on+Dec.+25%2C+2018+%28Photo+by+Abu+Asib+%7C+The+Daily+Utah+Chronicle%29

Snowfall at the downtown Salt Lake City on a Christmas night on Dec. 25, 2018 (Photo by Abu Asib | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Isaac Dunaway, News Writer

 

As the winter continues, correlated mental health issues are always something to stay aware of. Seasonal affective disorder, more commonly known as seasonal depression, is a form of depression that comes at the same time every year. Most often, it takes place during the fall and winter seasons.

“There’s several theories on why this happens and one of those is the idea that when the days get shorter, and we have more darkness, people tend to get more depressed from that type of experience,” said Jason Hunziker, the adult division chief of the adult psychiatry division at the University of Utah. “This is thought to be related to changes in the amount of light we receive … As that [daylight] gets shorter, the chemicals that we need in the brain to keep us happy and moving forward aren’t getting produced as readily.”

It is estimated that nearly 5% of the U.S. population is affected by seasonal affective disorder. Also, 14% of U.S. adults are affected by milder versions of seasonal affective disorder and other mood disorders, according to U Health.

There are a wide variety of symptoms associated with seasonal affective disorder. These have to include a low mood and/or loss of pleasure or interest in things someone usually enjoys. Other symptoms can include feeling sluggish, having difficulty concentrating, craving unhealthy foods and many others.

For college students, seasonal affective disorder is something to be especially conscious of throughout fall and winter.

“I think the transition out of daylight savings always feels challenging,” said Lauren Weitzman, the director of the University Counseling Center. “I think for college students it overlaps with finals and an already difficult part of the semester. I think it’s always important to be tuned in to when you might be having symptoms of depression.”

The main age group for not only seasonal affective disorder but depression, in general, is 18-35 years old.

“If you think about college-age kids, often this is their first time away from home,” Hunziker said. “They’re in the dorms, they’re trying to figure out how to make that work. They’re in a large university system where it can be quite overwhelming. They’re stressed with homework, they’re stressed with social situations. There’s tons of things going on all the time, and you can get lost in that.”

A common issue among college students is feeling too busy and not setting aside time to address mental health struggles.

“I think people ignore some of the early signs of depression … And of course, [with] stigma, who’s gonna want to tell people?” Hunziker said. “If you’ve gotten in a car accident, you wouldn’t have a hard time talking to anybody about what happened. But when you get depressed, you try to hide that … and all of that’s really common in the college-age group because there’s just so much stress.”

Treatments for seasonal affective disorder are unique, at least relative to other forms of depression. Among these treatments is light therapy.

“Light therapy is something that can really help people with this type of depression … Basically, there’s a special light box that people have and it helps them be exposed to bright light right when they wake up,” Weitzman said.

Light therapy is far from the only treatment for seasonal affective disorder. There are much simpler things to try and fight it.

“There are several things that people try if they know it’s a seasonal depression,” Hunziker said. “They can do things like getting outside even during the wintertime … there’s some literature that talks about spending 120 minutes a week outside so that you can try to give yourself the opportunity to get that sunlight you need to help yourself feel better.”

Other ways to fight seasonal affective disorder include exercise, face-to-face social interaction, eating well and limiting or avoiding alcohol.

For students struggling with seasonal affective disorder or other forms of mental health issues, there are resources on campus available to help, including the counseling center.

 

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