The SADdest Time of the Year?

Depressed man

Mahasweta Mitra

Master’s Student, Global Health Epidemiology

Winters in Michigan are beautiful! If you have never experienced snow, this might be an exciting time of the year. First snow, first snowman, first snow angels! Snow everywhere, snow every day.

On the flip side, winter also may mean the first time without bright sunny mornings, the first chills, and the first time away from home. Dark mornings, darker evenings, and cold—really cold—gray days in between.

Perhaps it feels that something has changed in you, as that feeling of excitement for your first snow starts to wither away into monotony. All of a sudden, you find yourself in a seasonal slump. You feel blue for days and days.

You feel sad and less energized, but you are able to get on with it. You pass it off as, “‘tis the season to be melancholy!” But you don’t stop to think, “Is this normal?”

Then, suddenly, you start to see a pattern. A pattern of recurrent mood swings and feelings of hopelessness. You lose interest in doing your favorite hobbies or even talking to your favorite people. You have trouble concentrating. You’re eating comfort food for every meal. You never seem to get enough sleep. You continue to feel the same way, but you don’t necessarily want to confront this as a problem. You are living in denial.

The first instance of feeling blue is not necessarily a medical condition. There’s no clinical diagnosis for the winter blues, but experts at the National Institutes of Health say this feeling is fairly common and usually marked by feeling more down than usual, sad, or less energized during the winter months, when the weather is cold and days are short. It usually clears up on its own in a fairly short amount of time. However, when you start noticing a pattern, you need to stop and reevaluate. You might have a condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD Diagnosis

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, SAD is a recurrent form of major depression, characterized by feelings of hopelessness and despair, fatigue, problems sleeping and concentrating, and changes in appetite. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-5, criteria for depression with a seasonal pattern include having depression that begins and ends during a specific season (especially during the winter) every year and completely goes away during other seasons for at least two years. Six percent of the US population, primarily those living in northern climates, is affected by SAD in its most marked form. Another 14 percent of US adults suffer from a lesser form of seasonal mood changes known as the winter blues.

Shedding light

Whether it’s just winter blues or something more severe, resources are available! Light therapy lamps, which can be purchased online, have been proven to be effective. In addition, University of Michigan students have access to a range of services on campus.

RELATED ARTICLE: What Colleges Must Do to Promote Mental Health for College Students

  • For University of Michigan students struggling with the winter blues or SAD, many resources are available:
    CAPS: The mission of Counseling and Psychological Services is to foster the psychological
    development and emotional well-being of students.
  • MiTalk: (Pronounced “My Talk”) is a mental health self-help resource for all University of Michigan students.
  • Mental Health Student Groups: Michigan students choosing to engage in mental health efforts
    on campus.
  • Find a Doctor: You can go online or call Michigan Medicine Customer Service at 734-936-4000.

References:

1. Seasonal Affective Disorder: An Overview of Assessment and Treatment Approaches. DepressRes Treat. 2015;2015:178564.
2. Targum SD, Rosenthal N. Seasonal affective disorder. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2008;5(5):31-3.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mahasweta MitraMahasweta Mitra is a second year master’s student in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Having worked as a clinical research associate in a focused diabetes care company prior to pursuing her master’s degree, her interests mainly lie in connecting the dots moving from individual patient data to population data in chronic diseases through a thorough understanding of social determinants. Currently, as a researcher on Professor Briana Mezuk’s team, Mitra’s work focuses on the evaluation of a community-based diabetes self-management program at the YMCA.

As president of the Michigan Public Health student organization OASIS (Organization in Aid for School of Public Health International Students), Mitra recently held a Coping with Winter workshop, which was well attended. Many students said they had heard of SAD before and several expressed that they had experienced symptoms of SAD or the winter blues.

 

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