Taking SAD Seriously

The Link, Winter 2018
| by Elizabeth Palermo |

Ontario winters can be long and dreary for many people. Although winter blues are common, up to six per cent of people experience intense mood and sleep changes known as a type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), clinical depression is a complex mood disorder caused by genetic predisposition, personality, stress or brain chemistry. The primary symptom of SAD is a sad, despairing mood that lasts most of the day for more than two weeks and impairs a person’s performance at school, work and in social relationships.

Often starting in the fall, peaking in January and February and lessening with longer days in the spring, SAD is found to be more common in women, those who work night shifts and in young adults. In particular, college and university students are at greatest risk, as said by world-renowned psychiatrist and author Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, who coined the term Seasonal Affective Disorder. He’s studied the effects of the seasons on himself and others for over 30 years and says the symptoms of SAD – changes in sleep, appetite, weight and concentration – can be easily dismissed as typical by-products of student life.

“Most high school students get some help from their parents in regulating their daily (circadian) rhythms,” writes Rosenthal on his blog, siting how parents often help their children get going in the morning and to bed at reasonable hours of the night. “With college comes the freedom to stay up late and sleep in the next morning. In doing so, students are deprived of sleep and light – especially the important light of early morning.”

Less sunlight decreases the level of serotonin in the brain, which affects moods and disrupts melatonin levels, which regulate sleep patterns. This impacts the body’s circadian rhythms, the 24-hour clock that regulates how and when we feel energized and alert or sleepy. Add to that, students are working more while going to school with increased workloads and, as the first semester progresses, reports of mental health concerns on campuses start to soar.

“Less sunlight decreases the level of serotonin in the brain, which affects moods and disrupts melatonin levels, which regulate sleep patterns.”

“Students often feel ashamed that they are not managing as well as they would like to – or think they ought to – and delay reaching out for help, which only makes the problem harder to reverse when they finally do so,” says Rosenthall, who also developed light therapy as a treatment for SAD.

Light therapy involves spending 30 minutes a day in front of a lightbox that mimics natural outdoor light. The idea is to alter circadian rhythms and the body’s natural release of melatonin, causing changes in the brain which reduce SAD symptoms. It doesn’t require medication and is best used at first with a counselor to understand its use and side-effects such as headaches or a manic episode for someone with bipolar disorder.

What to do if you’re experiencing symptoms? Rosenthall says take SAD seriously and get help. Bring more light into your home, especially in the morning, and spend regular time outdoors on sunny days. Make plans to stay connected with family and friends. The demand for mental health wellness on campuses is increasing, so check your school’s student resources. Trent University’s International Students page on the website lists SAD as a result of changing environments and adjusting to different levels of sunshine.

“The important thing is to recognize the problem early, get help when you need it, and it doesn’t have to be all self-help. There are professionals out there,” says Rosenthal. “It’s very real, even though it doesn’t show itself in any clear-cut way, it can be very serious. Most important, it’s reversible.”

For more information visit: camh.ca, kidshelpphone.ca, normanrosenthal.com

Elizabeth Palermo is a writer and yoga instructor living in Campbellcroft with her husband and two boys.

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