The name may have changed, but what was formerly known as seasonal affective disorder still impacts many people every winter.
Shervonti Norman, the assessment and triage counselor with SIUE Counseling Services, said major depressive disorder with seasonal patterns shares many symptoms with its year-round counterpart.
“It typically starts in the fall,” Norman said. “[A] person may be doing fine throughout the spring and summer, but when it starts getting colder, they notice they’re not as motivated, they are a bit more irritable – which is a common symptom that’s not talked about too much – their mood lessens … and their mood picks back up in the spring months, so like late March [and] April, and it’s the same every year. They notice that dip, and it comes back up.”
Taylor Rogers, a staff counselor with Counseling Services, said this disorder can present with a similar severity to clinical depression.
“It can be just as severe as major depressive disorder without seasonal patterns, which means it can include suicidal thoughts [and] slower thinking,” Rogers said. “Some of the more severe symptoms that people think of when they think of clinical depression.”
Norman and Rogers both said the lack of vitamin D, which the human body produces with exposure to sunlight, is thought to be a major cause of seasonal depression.
“It has a lot to do with sunlight and vitamin D,” Norman said. “For me, when it’s warmer outside, I have more energy [and] I want to do more, but when it’s cold I just want to be inside, snuggled up somewhere. So we have the issue with the sunlight, that makes our days shorter, [and] we have to pack much more in there, or at least we feel like it.”
Rogers said that, since this disorder coincides with the tougher parts of the academic year, it can be difficult to differentiate seasonal depression and anxiety from similar symptoms due to school.
“You want to be really careful about diagnosing this. If there’s a pattern in somebody’s yearly calendar that could better explain symptoms,” Rogers said. “A lot of students experience an increased level of stress in the winter months, because if you think about it, the academic calendar runs from about August to the end of May. For a lot of people, finals and midterms start in the fall, and graduation is shortly after, in the spring … So it’s hard for us to diagnose it when there’s a lot of academic stressors occurring around that time, because it’s hard to say this is definitely seasonal-related versus school-related stress.”
Rogers also said that short-term counseling like the services offered at SIUE run into trouble with diagnosing due to the long-term nature of this disorder.
“You’re technically not supposed to diagnose it if you’ve only seen it one time,” Rogers said. “If you had your first depressive episode in the winter, you’re not supposed to diagnose it until the next winter if a second one occurs.”
However, Rogers said students who have kept track of their winter mood changes can provide their counselors with invaluable information and insight into their concerns.
“The times that it mostly gets diagnosed is if we have a student who comes and they’ve been in therapy before, they [display] this pattern for several years, and it always happens around the winter time. In that case, we’d be more likely to diagnose it then. A lot of people are coming to therapy for their first time in college, so we wouldn’t diagnose it in that instance.”
Norman and Rogers both recommended students who notice they are displaying potential symptoms of seasonal depression see their doctor.
“Sometimes you might have a vitamin D deficiency, so doctors can do different tests for that,” Rogers said.
Norman and Rogers offered a variety of methods of self-care for students which do not require a visit to the doctor.
“There’s been a lot of research for people with depressive symptoms overall,” Norman said. “If they have low vitamin D, once they start taking supplements, that helps.”
Norman and Rogers also recommended light therapy for students in order to mimic the cycle of sunrises and sunsets.
“Other people have reported some success with light therapy,” Rogers said. “You can purchase these special lamps that mimic the sun, and you can put them on your desk or on your night stand, and they mimic the rise and fall of the sun to help keep your circadian rhythm in tune.”
Norman said she has been encouraged by students’ awareness and insight into their own mental health concerns, especially when it comes to depression and anxiety.
I feel like [students] are more insightful when it comes to their mood changes, especially their anxiety increasing,” Norman said. “A part of major depressive disorder can be suicidal ideation, [and] unfortunately this can come up in people that have MDD with seasonal patterns … As crazy as it is to say, it’s fairly common. A lot of people will experience suicidal ideation, it’s just knowing how to talk about it.”
For more information on seasonal depression or to make an appointment with Counseling Services, contact them at 618-650-2842.