Campus resources can combat seasonal affective disorder

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 - 1:26pm

Many students at the University of Michigan face seasonal affective disorder during the winter months every year.

Many students at the University of Michigan face seasonal affective disorder during the winter months every year. Buy this photo
Design by Michelle Fan

During the winter months many students can face the possibility of seasonal affective disorder, a mood disorder causing depression to occur at the same time every year. While most people experiencing SAD feel the effects from late fall to the end of winter, in a rarer form, people can experience SAD from late spring to early fall.

Vicki Hays, senior associate director of the University of Michigan’s Counseling and Psychological Services, says CAPS treats SAD as a facet of depression

“Seasonal affective disorder is considered a part of the overall umbrella of depression,” Hays said. “Primarily, I think you would notice that unlike your normal state of being, you’d feel more lethargic, less interested in things, maybe not able to concentrate as well, lots of our basic symptoms of depression. And it’s not a great combination to have that and have all the school stuff going on this time of year.”

Jim Dolan, the clinical director of CAPS, said although there may be an increase in students with SAD during the winter months, CAPS does not keep track of SAD-specific changes.

“I can tell you that about 22 percent of our students report depression as their primary presenting concern,” Dolan said. “But we really don’t differentiate between types of depression.”

Hays echoed his statement, saying depression is the second largest most common reason students go to CAPS for help, with anxiety being the first. Hays could not confirm if there is an increase in students going to CAPS during the winter.

“I don’t think so,” Hays said. “I have to say we’re fortunate that the students find us to be helpful and we have tons of students who come in. So we don’t necessarily track that data.”

Dolan also stressed the importance of understanding the difference between when someone may have depression and when the weather is just affecting their mood.

“It’s important for people to understand there’s a difference between the weather just kind of affecting your mood and the normal things we feel as human beings when the season changes, versus when something becomes depression, which is a more serious matter,” Dolan said. “It’s pretty normal for people to want to stay in bed a little more, or to raise carbohydrate foods and things like that. But it’s when it starts to interfere with your life —  like you can’t get out of bed or you stop attending events or you don’t go to classes — that’s when depression can be a real problem.”

Engineering senior Anna Learis agreed, noting she has noticed some of her friends suffering more from actual clinical depression during the winter, while some may just be feeling more down. Learis is the co-founder and editor in chief of Mentality Magazine, which aims to increase discussion about mental health by providing a platform for students to share their mental health experiences through writing.

“I have quite a few friends or acquaintances with things that are more along the lines of clinical depression, and obviously that gets worse,” Learis said. “But also with people who usually don’t have any mental health issues, when it’s this cold, you don’t go outside, you’re not socializing, you know, you stay in bed all day. And although that’s fun every now and then, you just get in such a slump, and especially in Michigan, I think it’s hard for students to get out of that slump.”

As a result, CAPS has established Wellness Zones on campus. Wellness Zones come equipped with massage chairs, yoga mats with meditation videos and artificial full spectrum light therapy lamps, which are used to alleviate SAD.

However, there are currently no Wellness Zones available for undergraduate students to use. The Wellness Zone for Central Campus has been temporarily closed and put into storage because of construction on the Michigan Union, and is slated to return in the winter 2020 semester. A new one is coming soon to North Campus in collaboration with the Engineering Student Government, but has not yet opened. Graduate students can use the Wellness Zone in the Munger Graduate Residences.

For those struggling with SAD or feeling the effects of the cold on their mental health, Learis recommended the sun lamps for light therapy and reaching out to friends to leave the house more often during the winter.

“One of our writers tried (light therapy lamps) out for two weeks and told us it changed her mood completely,” Learis said. “And then I tried it out and was like, “Oh my gosh, this works.” And going along those lines, I think one thing that comes up a lot when I talk to people about seasonal affective disorder is a lot of it kind of all rotates back to cutting yourself off socially … so another thing is reaching out to friends and making plans that force you to leave the house to still engage.”

Hays also recommended light therapy lamps and getting natural light outside in her advice to students.

“Spend time outside, regardless of how cold it is,” Hays said. “Even if it’s cloudy, the rays seem to come through in a way that lifts the spirits. Trying to maintain a regular sleep habit, trying to get outside even if it’s walking outside instead of taking a car. Spending more time outside than they might normally think about doing in the winter.”

While CAPS provides a multitude of resources for students on campus, some, like Learis, still bring up the issue of long waiting times for appointments.

Learis said the issue of long waiting times can be detrimental for people who need help immediately, but acknowledged that this problem has been alleviated slightly within the School of Engineering

“If someone’s having an issue, they want to talk now, not in two and a half weeks,” Learis said. “So I think until they get more rotating counselors, that’s a major issue. And fortunately, the College of Engineering has two embedded CAPS counselors, so a lot of my Engineering friends have said that they’ve seen improvements in scheduling times since it’s happened, but I think that’s the exception.”

According to Dolan, CAPS is on track to see about 2,500 students this semester, continuing a trend of substantial increases each semester for the past several years. However, the CAPS staff is at full capacity for their budget, so he said the possibility of increasing the number of counselors and available appointments is not likely.

“We are fully staffed for the funding that we have,” Dolan said. “It is a challenge, and I’ll be honest as the clinical director, it’s very challenging right now to meet the needs of all the students who come to CAPS.”

LSA senior Jordan Lazarus is the executive director of Wolverine Support Network, an organization sponsored by CAPS offering weekly peer-facilitated support groups as well as bi-weekly community events. Although he too has heard of the long waiting periods for CAPS appointments, Lazarus said they are still able to provide far more resources than other colleges he has worked with through WSN.

“Like everything else, there’s a finite amount of resources and I wish there was more,” Lazarus said. “I don’t run CAPS, but they exist to serve students. And I know that compared to a lot of campuses that I do interface with, CAPS here is really 50 steps ahead. But yeah, there are waiting times, and it is a problem.”

On long waiting lists, Dolan emphasized initial consultations are usually within a few days and CAPS provides a counselor on duty every day for walk-in meetings.

“Now that (walk-in meetings) is a first-come, first-served service, so sometimes students might have to wait to see the counselor on duty, but we have counselors on duty to see someone every day,” Dolan said. “The wait times might come in later on when people are actually engaged in counseling because we have so many students that are interested in individual counseling. Again, we do our best to see students right away, but there might be some waits in terms of actually engaging with the counselor.”

Learis also recognized improvements in student resources when it comes to mental health and highlighted the growth in student organizations advocating for mental health.

“I think this might…  be because I’ve gotten more involved with the mental health community over my time — but I see so many organizations doing such great work,” she said. “From CAPS in Action to CSG’s Mental Health Task Force to Mentality Magazine. So I feel like the conversation is more frequent about mental health, even if we aren’t necessarily getting more resources. More people know they can say, ‘I’m not having a good mental health day.’”

For emergencies, Learis recommended the CAPS 24-hour hotline as well as the University’s Psychiatric Emergency Service hotline. Finding a shared experience with someone else, Lazarus says, could make all the difference in getting better.

“Talk about it,” he said. “Everyone — seriously, everyone — is going through something. And I believe from a peer support side, just knowing that there’s someone who you can relate to and empathize with, you know like, ‘We both get SAD in the winter.’ Just to feel that sense of connection and shared humanity is really powerful, and can really, really help.”

CAPS 24-hour services can be reached at 734.764.8312.