Most of us love the change of seasons. But for some, their mental health changes during certain seasons — and not for the better. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression also known as SAD. In the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), this disorder is identified as a type of major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern.
People with SAD experience symptoms similar to depression that typically occur during the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight. The most difficult months for people with SAD tend to be January and February. With that said, SAD is more than the winter blues. Symptoms can be distressing and interfere with daily functions. About 5% of adults in the U.S. experience SAD, and it typically lasts about 40% of the year.
SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter. As seasons change, people experience a shift in their biological clock or circadian rhythm that can cause them to be out of step with their daily schedule. This occurs much more often in women than in men, and it is more common in those living farther north where there are shorter daylight hours in the winter.
In most cases, SAD begins in young adulthood and is more common in people with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, especially bipolar II disorder, which is associated with recurrent depressive and hypomanic episodes.
How SAD impacts college students
SAD can be particularly troublesome for college students. Instead of getting up early and having a regular routine like they did in high school, college students often stay up late to study or socialize. This often leads to sleeping in if they don’t have morning classes, making it harder to get the vitamin D needed to ward off symptoms of SAD.
Resources offered through campus can be the keys to helping students cope. Education and awareness are good initial steps to help students know how to correctly identify SAD. Common symptoms include fatigue (even with too much sleep) and weight gain associated with overeating and carbohydrate cravings. SAD symptoms can vary from mild to severe and can include many symptoms similar to major depression, such as:
- Feeling sad or having a depressed mood.
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed.
- Changes in appetite; usually eating more, craving carbohydrates.
- Change in sleep; usually sleeping too much.
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue despite increased sleep hours.
- Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g. inability to sit still, pacing, handwringing) or slowed movements and/or speech.
- Feeling worthless or guilty.
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions.
- Thoughts of death or suicide.
Helping college students deal with SAD
Students are independent, young adults learning to navigate the world on their own. However, if you suspect students are suffering from SAD, share these five practical ways to help.
1. Maintain a regular bedtime.
Lack of sleep worsens symptoms of general depression and can increase the likelihood of experiencing SAD. It can be hard to maintain a regular sleep schedule when students are studying and working at all hours. Emphasize the importance of going to bed at a specific time each day. Not only will late nights make depression more likely, but lack of sleep can negatively impact academic success. Help your students sleep better by suggesting bedtime accessories like eye masks and earplugs or developing a pre-sleep relaxation routine.
2. Create balance and routine.
It’s likely your students are getting the hang of managing their time. Help them understand how to balance studying with other everyday activities, work, student organizations, downtime and so on. The beginning and end of semesters are often stressful for students, but routine creates order and helps keep anxiety in check.
3. Prioritize emotional and physical well-being.
Many of us see winter as a time to shut out the cold and stay indoors. It’s especially tempting for college students in the hours they’re not in class. Yet, hibernating inside can be a factor contributing to SAD, causing students to forego exercise, avoid social connections and spend less time in the limited sunlight. Spending time at home or in a residence hall might feel like a natural choice when feeling depressed, but keeping regular routines can make a real difference.
4. Consider light therapy.
Light therapy can be an alternative method for managing SAD. One idea is for your campus to have light therapy boxes on hand to provide college students wrestling with the condition. Twenty minutes to an hour of light exposure each day can have a positive effect in treating symptoms of SAD.
5. Visit on-campus healthcare facilities.
At some point, it may be necessary for students to take advantage of on-campus mental health support. If your school doesn’t offer counseling services or isn’t able to refer your student to a local specialist, another alternative is virtual care like the the telehealth programs offered by TimelyMD. Benefits include:
- Immediate emotional support for students dealing with SAD, depression, thoughts of suicide and other issues.
- 24/7 care that expands after-hours support, eliminates wait times and provides support for critical situations.
- The ability to comply with state licensure requirements and reach out-of-state students who are learning remotely or not able to be on campus.
- Continuity of care with existing campus mental health resources and campus health care protocols.
If you would like to learn how telehealth can support your students struggling with SAD, contact TimelyMD. Together, we can help improve the health and well-being of your students.