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University offers assistance to those fighting seasonal affective disorder

By Ariana Assaf, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 20, 2014

Bad weather has a knack for getting people down. But when sad leads to SAD, there’s more that students can do beside counting the days until summer.

Seasonal affective disorder — known as SAD — is a form of depression that is most prevalent in regions of the country such as the Midwest, where it is particularly cold and dark between mid-October and mid-March.

Though many students tend to experience what is known as “winter blues,” Victoria Hays, associate director at the University’s Counseling and Psychology Services, said being formally diagnosed with SAD does not happen as frequently.

Often, people who have already experienced some depression come to realize that it worsens in the winter after consulting with a healthcare professional.

“It’s not as common to get someone coming in who’s never had difficulties with depression before and whose first diagnosis is SAD,” Hays said.

Information on the University Health System’s website explains that SAD is most common in women and in people between 15 and 55 years old.

According to a research report by John Greden, professor of psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, 4 to 6 percent of people have “full-blown” SAD and 10 to 20 percent of Americans exhibit some symptoms. Greden serves as the executive director of the University’s Comprehensive Depression Center.

People suffering from SAD often report feeling sluggish, slow or unmotivated. Other symptoms include drowsiness, weight gain and craving carbohydrates as a way to increase energy.

Hays said SAD is primarily trigged by diminished exposure to sunlight, not cold temperatures.

“Some people are particularly sensitive to changes in the amount of sunlight, so when there’s less sunlight people feel a lot worse,” she said.

She added that the times of year when SAD tends to take hold and then taper off — mid-October and mid-March, respectively — are also high-stress times for students, which can make it hard to pinpoint exactly what contributes to the seasonal change in mood.

Light therapy is the most effective way to combat depression caused by a lack of natural sunlight. At the University, light boxes are available for use in the CAPS Wellness Zone and can also be purchased for personal use.

People who are susceptible to bipolar disorder should refrain from exposing themselves to too much light late in the day, as this can lead to hypomania or interruptive sleep. Generally, using a light box for 20 minutes in the morning three or four times a week is recommended.

Another common treatment is using a dawn simulator, an alarm clock that mimics the rising sun.

Greden also cited antidepressant medication and exercise as a treatment for SAD. Because limited amounts of sunlight can slow down biological clocks and delay sleep and hormone cycles, a combination of light therapy and prescribed medications can be particularly effective in some cases.

Hays said students who think they might be affected by SAD can go online to see if their symptoms meet the criteria and explore treatment options.

“Some of the initial treatment recommendations can be done without seeing a mental health professional, but you won’t know whether or not you actually have SAD without somebody giving the proper diagnosis.”

Because CAPS is a free service for students, it generally does not diagnose specific mental conditions and therefore does not track numbers of students who report being affected by specific conditions. However, the number one reason students seek assistance at Counseling and Psychological Services is for issues with anxiety. Depression is second.

The University’s Comprehensive Depression Center is located in the Rachel Upjohn Building at 4250 Plymouth Road. The center can be reached at 1-800-475-6424 or 734-936-4400.


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