Experts say seasonal affective disorder 'is very common' among college students

By Carolyn Sistrand, AccuWeather staff writer

It’s that time of year where the days get dark earlier and temperatures are plummeting across many areas of the country. Most people look forward to ending their work day cuddled by the fire, but college students finish classes only to look forward to a long night in the library.

This time of year, students are in the middle of final projects, papers and exams. It is normal for many, if not all, college students to feel nerves and anxieties about their upcoming deadlines. There are the few, however, who might feel impaired beyond those normal stresses.

Those students could be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

“It is a subset of a depressive disorder,” said Jordan D. Barnard, licensed psychologist at the Pennsylvania State University Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). “Similar to other mood disorders, it is something that causes clinical impairment and functioning in different domains, those being social, academic, occupational, on a seasonal cycle.”

Sad woman

Feelings associated with SAD tend to worsen as it gets colder out; however, symptoms could start as early as August.

“How badly your symptoms are going to manifest depends on where you are, how much stress you have, and the things that are going on in your life,” said Norman Rosenthal, M.D., author of "Winter Blues."

Some typical signs of someone who suffers from SAD are not wanting to hang out with friends or be in social settings, sleeping in and skipping classes, slipping grades, not sleeping enough, overeating and severe sadness.

As the work keeps piling up, deadlines inch closer and with no one pushing college students to work through these feelings, it makes these feelings easier to cave into.

“In high school, parents have helped children get up and going in the morning,” said Rosenthal. “Now all of a sudden they’re in college. Students stay up late, they drink more, they sleep late, they skip their morning class or they drag themselves in, but are not functioning.”

Barnard said that while some students are aware of SAD and its effects on them, many students do not realize what the disorder is and come into CAPS thinking they are depressed. While they are, in a sense, depressed, something that is seasonal like SAD could avoid the need for medication and instead could be worked through with behavioral treatment.

The sufferer, however, must put into some work of their own in order to overcome the feelings of the disorder.

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“If they aren’t aware, then they're not being attuned on how to treat it and if that is the case, it is going to be hard to overcome those symptoms,” said Barnard. “Most likely, those symptoms are going to come back on that cycle because there is nothing being done to change that.”

For those seeking help, the treatment may cause a shakeup in their daily routines.

Prioritizing the easily neglected areas like nutrition and sleep will be one of the first, and hardest, steps, according to Barnard. “All-nighters” should be avoided at all costs, and time management should utilize the times of the day you are most attentive and effective when getting work done.

Monitoring your mood is also another way to stay on top of your disorder. Barnard suggests doing daily mood checks at the end of the day to help you to remain aware of how you are feeling and possibly why you are feeling this way.

“Ask for feedback from people who know you the best, they are usually the ones who can tell when things are wrong even before you can,” said Barnard. “We get a lot of students that come in who say that they were recommended to come in by a friend, a professor, an advisor or a coach.”

Incorporating exercise, which Barnard calls the most natural antidepressant, could offer great mental relief. The challenge becomes installing a normalized exercise schedule, especially for those who do not routinely exercise to begin with.

Light box treatment is also a common course of action for SAD suffers. Much of the disorder is induced because of the changes in sunlight, so the addition of extra light into your day could offer some relief.

Lichttherapie zu Hause

“I am very confident in the treatments for SAD because I am confident in the treatments for depression,” said Barnard. “If you do the work, there absolutely can be progress made.”

As society continues to bring forward mental health awareness, the struggles of any depressive disorder are still personal and scary for most people.

College students, especially, do not want to give off the impression that they cannot handle their first years out in the world on their own. What many do not understand, though, is that this disorder among students isn’t a rarity.

“It is very common,” said Rosenthal. “It is a huge group that needs outreach.”

Universities and college campuses around the country offer health centers that typically have psychiatric services. It may not be the primary care physician that you are most comfortable with, but any student who is having feelings of intense sadness, anxiety, stress and emotional impairment does have these on-campus resources.

Aside from school resources, other outlets may be more useful in seeking advice and understanding what these feelings you have truly mean.

“Consult with a professional when appropriate, if you have a good relationship with your primary care doctor talk to them, talk to a friend who has been open about their experience with depression or SAD to get some other information,” said Barnard. “That would really be the way to start the process of getting help, because it really is a process.”

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