For many, the end of the holidays marks the beginning not just of the New Year, but of a long, figurative trudge through the waning, dark winter, not ending until the snow melts and spring sun arrives.
And despite the amount of daylight growing by the minute each day, we are also smack dab in the middle of some of the toughest months for seasonal affective disorder, a type of seasonal depression.
Dr. Kelly Rohan is a specialist studying SAD with the University of Vermont. She said January and February were a “high-risk time” for what she called “full blown, major depressive episodes.”
Rohan first got interested in SAD when working as a graduate student at the University of Maine.
“I was in a northern location in a depression lab where we were seeing a ton of depressed patients in the winter,” she said. “I was noticing this really obvious seasonal trend.”
SAD is a recurring depression closely tied to the lengthening and shortening of daylight hours and is more commonly experienced from fall through winter, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
The NIMH states that being female, living far from the equator, family history, having depression or bipolar disorder and being of a younger age all increase one’s risk of SAD.
A study published in 1990 found the prevalence of people 18 and older suffering from SAD was as high as 9 percent in more northern latitudes, like Vermont, and as low as 1 percent in a state like Florida.
Rohan said 9 percent was probably an overestimation, due to how the study was performed, and suspects the actual number to be closer to 1 to 2 percent in Vermont.
Symptoms of SAD are the same as any other non-seasonal depression, as well as much of the treatment.
“It can be serious business, with significant symptoms,” Rohan said, with the more severe symptoms of a major depression, like frequent thoughts of death or suicide.
NIMH lists the symptoms of winter SAD as low energy, excessive sleepiness, overeating, weight gain, craving carbohydrates and social withdrawal.
Kathy Butts, director of personal counseling at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, said she sees students go into a slump in the winter.
“It’s cold, it’s dark. I think it makes it harder for kids who are already struggling some,” she said.
Butts said lacking sunlight and cold temperatures can interfere with a “self-care routine” and affect motivation, a key component of any depression, and “the kind of basic things that we all need to keep can kind of get out of whack,” she said.
Butts doesn’t see a lot of SAD on campus, but said it can be hard to distinguish from “regular old depression.”
She did say, with any depression, discussing lifestyle habits, like exercise, sleep and nutrition, as well as any changes in routine is often the first step.
“It’s important that they talk with somebody and not let it go,” Butts said. “You don’t have to just suffer through it.”
The SMC wellness center and library provide light boxes to students if they want to perform light therapy on themselves, a traditional treatment option for SAD, Butts said.
NIMH lists other treatments and therapies as medication, psychotherapy and vitamin D.
Dr. Rohan pioneered a method of applying cognitive behavioral therapy to SAD patients, encouraging them to challenge thoughts and behaviors that cause social isolation and affect mood.
A study published in 2015 found CBT was more effective than light therapy in preventing future relapses. More recently, the field has become a lot more forward-looking, Rohan said, with a greater focus on prevention and recurrence.
Rohan cautioned against self-diagnosing SAD, noting it’s a serious illness that should be identified by a mental health professional.
“Just because you can walk into Costco and walk out with a happy light doesn’t mean you should,” she said.