As the days shorten and the temperature cools, limiting warmth and sunlight, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is an ailment that affects many this time of year. A more intense and disruptive variety of “winter blues,” SAD is a “subset of a depressive disorder,” according to Jordan D. Barnard, licensed psychologist at the Pennsylvania State University Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).
SAD acts like depression in that the shift in mood caused by darker, colder days negatively impacts various areas of a person’s life, including social, academic, and occupational.
For students, especially those who are just striking out on their own and still learning independence, SAD can hit especially hard, particularly at the college level. Unlike high schoolers who have to be up early for school, college students often stay up late and sleep in, hence making their exposure to sunlight minimal during the winter.
Seasonal affective disorder can be a problem for college students
This time of year, coinciding with shortening days and dropping temperatures, classes are wrapping up and students are heaped with the extra stress of impending exams. Students may be trying to keep up with heavy class loads while simultaneously maintaining a hectic social life and working part-time jobs.
They may be drinking and staying up late, both of which can impact mood. Even if they’re not out late socializing, students are likely up late studying for exams. It’s a significant amount of extra anxiety to cope with, even for the most competent and self-reliant young adult. Even for most seasoned adults, a busy college student’s schedule would be a lot to cope with.
SAD is most prevalent in the coldest months, though symptoms can appear as early as August. Symptoms mimic depression in that the sufferer may avoid social activities, sleep in and skip classes or not sleep enough, overeat, or experience anhedonia (loss of interest in things previously enjoyed). Slipping grades is another common sign.
Some students may not immediately realize they are suffering from SAD, and even if they do realize they’re struggling, they may not be quick to ask for help. For students determined to prove they can handle independence, they may be less likely to admit they are having difficulty coping.
Also, though we’ve made significant progress with mental health awareness, some stigma remains. It may be hard for some students to reach out, either because they are unable to recognize their symptoms or because they would rather not admit they need help.
So what can parents do if they suspect their college student is suffering from SAD? Depression often requires the use of medication for treatment, but, according to Barnard, symptoms of SAD can often be managed without the need for medication. Students can add time outdoors, exercise regularly, spend time with supportive friends, and limit stress as much as possible.
According to the Mayo Clinic, light therapy, also called phototherapy, is another common treatment used with SAD—this requires the patient to set a few feet from a light box that mimics the effects of sunlight, said to cause a shift in the brain chemicals that impact mood.
Psychotherapy can help as well, as can meditation or meditative exercise such as yoga and tai chi. In extreme cases, antidepressants can be of assistance.
The good thing is, unlike major depressive disorder, SAD is seasonal – symptoms typically abate as sunshine, warmth, and longer days return.
Until then, parents can check in with their adult kids. If they seem to be experiencing extreme sadness that interferes with their ability to function, parents can encourage their student to seek support. Most college and university campuses have health centers where students can obtain psychiatric services.
For many, just knowing a support system is in place, knowing that what they’re feeling is legitimate, and knowing that it’s temporary can go a long way in helping them begin to manage their symptoms.
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