Managing mental health: Seasonal affective disorder

Approximately 20 to 40 percent of people in Michigan have some degree of SAD

Foust Hall sits open for Tuesday, Feb. 28 on the campus of Central Michigan University. CMU's Counseling Center, Health Clinic and Graduate Student Services are located in Foust Hall.

As the shorter days pass by and late Winter approaches, many people may feel sluggish or find it difficult to put effort into everyday tasks. According to Mayo Clinic, it's normal to have down days from time to time, but if this becomes a consistent occurrence, it could indicate something more than just a case of the winter blues. 

According to Mayo Clinics' website, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons. SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. While most people with SAD experience symptoms in the fall and winter months, a rarer kind called summer-onset SAD begins in spring or early summer and resolves during the fall or winter months.

The exact cause of Seasonal Affective disorder is still unknown, the website said. However, Mayo Clinic provided a few examples of factors that seem to play into SAD:

  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm): The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD, or SAD that begins in late fall or early winter. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body's internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels: A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin which may trigger depression.
  • Melatonin levels: The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body's level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Atefeh Jenrow, a counselor from Central Michigan University’s Student Counseling Center said the following are some general symptoms people with SAD may experience:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
  • Having problems with sleep
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having low energy
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

While winter and summer onset SAD are classified as the same disorder, according to Mayo Clinic there may be some differences in symptoms for each person.

According to Jenrow, for winter-pattern SAD, additional specific symptoms may include:

  • Oversleeping
  • Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Social withdrawal, social isolation

Jenrow said specific symptoms for summer-pattern SAD may include:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Poor appetite, leading to weight loss
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Episodes of violent behavior

According to an article by MSU Today, about 3 percent of the population across the United States deals with seasonal depression. In Michigan, it is estimated that as many as 20 to 40 percent of the population has some degree of SAD.

The article said that women experience SAD four times more frequently than men, though the reason why is unknown.

Jenrow said if you experience any of these symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider about which treatment, or combination of treatments, is best for you.

There are a few different treatment options when it comes to SAD. The following are some options, according to Jenrow:

  • Light Therapy Box
    • A light therapy box is a small light that mimics natural light. It's thought that this type of light may cause a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD, as it allows for more light exposure.  The Mayo Clinics' website offers more information on light therapy boxes. 
  • Prescribed Medication 
    • The exact kind of medication varies with each case. Patients should meet with their healthcare provider if they believe medication is the correct treatment for them. 
  • Talk Therapy 
    • Also called Psychotherapy, talk therapy uses methods such as discussion, listening and counseling to treat mental, emotional, personality and behavioral disorders.

While it's best to talk to a medical professional about treatment options, Jenrow said that people can improve their symptoms by increasing time spent in the sunlight. This can be done by simply spending time outside, or having a sunny window in your indoor work area, saidJenrow. 

Jenrow went on to give some tips for maintaining mental health in general.

 “You can improve your mental health by getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and staying connected to your social environment, or where other people are present, such as volunteering,” Jenrow said.

For those looking for ideas on how to get involved in the campus community visit CMU Student Affairs‘ website

If students feel like they need support, they can reach out for help at the Counseling Center

Additionally, if you or someone you know is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. You also can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741) or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.