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More Than The "Winter Blues": Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

Updated: Mar 20

Winter is rough, especially for college students. The holidays have ended and with them the cozy comforts of visiting home. A new schedule of classes has begun. And in many parts of the country, colder, wetter weather makes treks across campus downright slogs.


Winter’s shorter, darker days also bring a spike in mental health conditions. A 2013 Google study showed that searches for information across all major mental health illnesses followed seasonal patterns. The colder the weather, the more frequent the searches. This includes information searches for illnesses such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and even ADHD and eating disorders.


For some people, the chilly transition from fall to winter means the onset of a specific form of seasonal depression: Seasonal Affective Disorder. Because some of SAD’s symptoms mirror the way many of us feel when the days grow gloomy, it’s easy to dismiss them simply as signs of the “winter blues.” This could explain why only 0.5 to 3 percent of Americans are officially diagnosed with SAD.


But experiencing SAD is more than just feeling down when temperatures drop. The mood changes brought on by this disorder are serious and can negatively impact the way a person thinks, feels, and acts. For college students, these shifts can also hinder academic success and personal development on campus.


Just in time for winter’s cold, here are some ways your administration can identify how SAD and other mental illnesses are impacting your students, and how to provide the mental health care they need to thrive in college and beyond.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?


Seasonal Affective Disorder, commonly referred to as SAD, is a form of depression. Unlike clinical depression, which causes a persistently depressed mood or loss of interest in activities year-round, symptoms of SAD present only when the seasons change. Typically, symptoms start late in the fall and last through the winter, disappearing in spring and summer months.


What are the symptoms of SAD?


Because SAD is a seasonal form of depression, many of its signs and symptoms mirror those of clinical depression. Symptoms of major depression may include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day

  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed

  • Changes in appetite or weight

  • Feeling sluggish or agitated

  • Low energy

  • Feeling hopeless or worthless

  • Difficult concentrating

  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide

In most cases, SAD occurs during fall and winter months. Specific symptoms of winter-pattern SAD may include:

  • Oversleeping

  • Overeating

  • Weight gain

  • Social withdrawal

In some cases, SAD occurs during the summertime. Specific symptoms of summer-pattern SAD may include:

  • Insomnia

  • Poor appetite and weight loss

  • Restlessness and agitation

  • Anxiety

  • Episodes of violent behavior

Who can experience SAD?


Anyone—although it’s most common among people who live in northern states with significantly less sunlight and colder temperatures in winter than in summer. A person living in Minnesota, for example, is more likely to experience SAD than someone living in Florida. SAD is more common in women than in men and typically begins in young adulthood.

What causes SAD?


While seasonal changes spark SAD, it’s actually linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain as well as a lack of vitamin D. Less sunlight can cause a shift in one’s circadian rhythm, which often makes them feel out of step and unable to maintain their daily routines and schedules.


This can be especially distressing for college students, who are experiencing a newfound independence and may still be struggling to balance their new lifestyle with daily obligations. Staying up late to study or socialize often leads to sleeping in, which can in turn lead to feeling sluggish throughout the day, missing social, academic or professional commitments, and a depressed mood.

What are some ways college students can cope with SAD?


Creating lifestyle balance and sticking to routines both have positive impacts on alleviating symptoms of depression. Maintaining a regular bedtime, for example, can help ensure students get enough sleep every night, which helps them focus during class and schoolwork and ward off sleep deprivation or insomnia. Using eye masks, earplugs, and establishing pre-bedtime routines are great ways to practice good sleep hygiene and ensure adequate quality shut eye each night.


Implementing healthy study habits also contributes to academic success, as well as decreases anxiety. Once a study routine—like designating a specific time or location for exam prep and completing assignments—is in place, it can provide a foundation to help students better manage stress when the academic pace picks up, like around midterms or finals.


Socializing is another helpful way to mitigate symptoms of SAD. Though hibernating indoors while feeling down can seem like a natural response, social isolation is actually known to worsen symptoms of depression. Getting outside, staying active, and continuing to spend time with friends can help ease feelings of loneliness, increase energy levels, and boost mood.


Light therapy has been used to treat SAD for decades and would be a simple and effective addition to a dorm room, common area, or other shared campus space. During treatment, a person sits in front of a specialized, UV-free light box (20 times brighter than ordinary indoor light) every day for 30 to 45 minutes. Light therapy provides the mood-boosting stimulation natural sunlight can’t on dark winter days.


Finally, a crucial step in treating symptoms of SAD is to seek counseling from a medical professional. It is important students feel supported and comfortable in visiting a campus health center or local provider’s office to receive the care they need.

How can college administrators help students who are experiencing SAD or other mental illnesses?


There are many ways college administrators can help students suffering from mental illness and they all ladder up to one thing: prioritizing mental health care on campus.


For students who feel they might be suffering from SAD or another mental disorder, it’s important they can easily and comfortably receive a diagnosis. Ensuring mental health care is provided during extended hours at campus health centers or even via telehealth is a great way to make taking that initial step toward better health and wellness more convenient and less overwhelming for students.


Continuing to provide mental health care and emotional support in ways that fit students’ lifestyles is just as important as identifying the issue to begin with. Consider how the perceived stigma around mental health might impact a student’s willingness (or reluctance) to seek care and provide it in ways that combats that.


Often, students don’t take advantage of health services available to them on campus because they either don’t understand their benefits or aren’t sure how to use them. Remedy this by educating students in ways they’ll respond to, such as through gamification, apps, or other interactive tools. For more tips, download our “eGuide to a Robust Student Health Insurance Plan.”


Unsure where to begin? An experienced partner like HUB Campus Health Solutions can help ensure your administration is doing everything it can to prioritize and improve the mental health of your students. Our experts can assess your current mental health care program on campus or help establish one.

At HUB Campus Health, we champion bold innovations and offer customized health plans, resources, and tools designed to improve the overall health and wellbeing of your students. Together, we can offer the holistic support students need to thrive on campus and succeed in life.

Do you need help developing and executing a strategy to improve student health and wellness on your campus? To get started, visit our Campus Health webpage to fill out a simple contact form or get in touch with Phillip Arrington, Vice President of HUB Campus Health, at PhillipA@horanassoc.com.




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