As the nights grow longer and the days shorter with the onset of winter, the changing weather can have serious repercussions on the mental health and well-being of students.
One issue students may face is seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, which is a common type of depression that has a seasonal pattern, Ankit Chalia, a third-year resident at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Department of Psychiatry, said.
“By seasonal pattern we mean to say that it’s more evident during this time of year, during fall, when the sunlight outside decreases, so what happens is because your days get a little shorter, people with seasonal affective disorder will usually feel depressed during this time of the year,” he said.
Half a million people in the Unites States suffer from SAD, and 10-20 percent more may suffer from a milder form of the “winter blues,” according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Symptoms of SAD include depressed mood, irritability, changes in sleep patterns, changes in concentration and changes in eating habits, Chalia said.
“These symptoms should minimally last for at least for two weeks for you to kind of make a determination that this is something more than an adjustment to the season,” he said.
There is a specific set of criteria to be diagnosed as a seasonal pattern, including onset and remission that coincides with the time of year, no depression episodes outside of that time period and more, Andrew Hickman, a doctoral intern at the Student Counseling Center, said.
There are multiple factors that are related to the development of SAD, Hickman said. The decrease in sunlight during the winter months disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm, or sleep cycles. Additionally, the reduced sunlight affects the serotonin and melatonin levels in the body.
“Reduced sunlight causes a drop in serotonin, which is a brain chemical that affects mood. And then also it affects melatonin,” Hickman said. “A change in seasons can disrupt melatonin levels, which can also affect sleep patterns and mood.”
People also tend to have more limited social interaction in the winter months, he said, which worsens mental well-being.
“In weather like this I know people kind of want to tend to stay inside and that people tend to sort of isolate and stay away from the public, and that tends to generally make things worse,” he said. “Obviously social interaction and fresh air helps quite a bit.”
These factors can have an effect on any individual, he said, even those who are not exhibiting the more extreme symptoms characteristic of SAD.
“To a certain extent changes in mood are going to be considered normal, because the factors I listed tend to affect your mood,” he said.
Cecilia Smith, a junior English and chemistry double major, said in her hometown of Chicago she has observed the ways in which winter weather impacts people’s mood.
“There are spans of time for 40 or 50 days when we don’t see the sun, and you can definitely tell that it kind of brings people down a little bit and makes them not want to go outside or do anything as much,” Smith said.
It can be hard to notice the changes in mood with the season at first, Smith said, but when it does get warmer and sunnier, it becomes apparent how much time has been spent staying at home and how depressing the winter season can be.
Although the weather in Lubbock is not nearly as severe, people in Lubbock might still deal with some of the same issues, she said.
“I think because people here are used to the sun constantly that even when you have a couple of days without it, it has a really big effect on people’s moods,” she said.
One of the more successful treatments to treat SAD is light therapy, Chalia said.
“75 percent of people respond to light therapy,” he said. “So that’s like bright light exposure for at least a couple of hours of exposure during the day.”
The lights in light therapy emit 25,000 lux, he said. Normal 60-watt lightbulbs emit around 800 lux. If light therapy is not effective, there are FDA approved medications also available.
For those who are not exhibiting full-blown symptoms of SAD, Chalia still recommends exposure to bright light during the winter months.
“For anybody who tends to notice that during this time of year that maybe their mood is more like dysphoric, they’re kind of feeling more sad, light exposure in general helps,” Chalia said.
It is recommended for individuals to expose themselves to bright sunlight, or an equivalent light, early in the day, Chalia said. As the day progresses, individuals should decrease their light exposure, especially during the night when TVs and phones commonly emit bright light.
Doing so helps regulate sleep hormones such as melatonin, Chalia said. More generally, Chalia also recommends maintaining a healthy diet, social life and exercise.
While some symptoms may resolve on their own with the interventions mentioned, if symptoms grow more severe and characteristic of SAD, students should seek out professional help, Chalia said.
Red flags include thoughts that life is no worth living anymore, changes in appetite and weight, an inability to find enjoyment in activities, social isolation, missing school, work and more, Chalia said.
“If it gets to that point and you start feeling depressed to the point that you’re not able to function, then you should seek professional help,” he said.
The primary resource for students on campus is the Student Counseling Center, Hickman said. The center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday and walk-ins are available from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. every weekday.
Students need to be aware of their mental health and how it might change with the season, Hickman said.
“A lot of people may not really make that connection between just noticing these symptoms at a certain time of year and not really making that connection that the weather can in fact play a role in it,” Hickman said.
Making time to check in on mental health is key, Chalia said, and its something everybody should do, especially at this time of year when SAD and mood change in general due to the weather are an issue.
“We need to understand that there is a prevalence,” he said. “This does affect people.”