As the days get colder and shorter, many students find themselves with a case of the winter blues. Feeling down is a natural response to not getting outside as much, but for some, it can be much more severe.
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a mood disorder that occurs during the fall and winter months and lasts until spring. It is estimated that two to three per cent of Canadians have SAD.
Ursula Goode, a Halifax resident, has struggled with the condition since she was 12.
“I’ll have energy and then woah… I’m exhausted,” she says. “I just don’t have motivation.”
Suzy Zhang, a third-year biology student at Dalhousie University, says that it’s a challenge to get people to understand the legitimacy of SAD.
“My general perception of the condition is that people like to play it off as just ‘oh, it’s school season, you’re stressed, that’s all it is,’ and that’s not great when you’re dealing with something that’s actively affecting your life,” she says.
One of Zhang’s most prevalent symptoms is hypersomnia, or excessive sleeping. Constant fatigue was a serious problem, especially in her first year at university.
“I think there was a solid week and a half where I didn’t go to classes. I’d wake up in the morning and not feel conscious or present, and then just go back and sleep,” Zhang explains. “I think I once slept for a full day straight just because I didn’t want to deal with the world. So obviously that didn’t reflect very well on my grades.”
Dr. Kate Harkness is a professor of psychology at Queen’s University, and an expert in mood disorders. She says there are nine common symptoms of SAD, including a depressed mood, decreased activity, and hypersomnia. A patient must exhibit five of the nine symptoms in order to be diagnosed.
“I would suggest that if people have symptoms of depression, and if those symptoms are interfering with your ability to do the work you need to do at school, or interfering with your relationships, the best thing to do is to talk to somebody at student wellness, or a family doctor, and get an actual assessment,” Harkness says.
“Because it’s really up to a professional to make that diagnosis, and then be able to prescribe treatments that we know work for these problems.”
SAD happens due to changes in natural light. At night, the brain produces a chemical called melatonin, which causes fatigue. In the morning, the increase in light stimulates a part of the brain called the pineal gland, which causes alertness.
“For us living in Canada, in the wintertime there are lower levels of light… so all people feel a little less energy, but people with SAD are particularly sensitive to those changes in the light, and may actually need more light to stimulate that decrease in melatonin that is needed to activate behaviour and moods during the day,” Harkness explains.
The most common treatment for SAD is phototherapy- using a light therapy lamp that mimics natural sunlight. If people don’t fully respond to phototherapy, doctors prescribe psychotherapy or medication.
The Halifax Central Library has light therapy lamps that people can use for free. There are two large lamps on the third floor, as well as smaller portable ones that people can rent for up to 14 days at a time with a library card.
Goode has used a light therapy lamp in the past, and says they are extremely helpful.
“They work fucking wonders,” she says with a laugh. “It’s almost like eating after not eating for a long time.”