Returning to school for the spring semester from the holidays is already a challenge for most students, but attending class in January and February — two of Utah’s coldest and darkest months — creates a unique obstacle for students who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
SAD is a form of depression that returns annually as the seasons change to fall and winter, when days get shorter and darker, and then begins to fade as spring and summer return with longer days and more sunlight, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Symptoms often align with common symptoms of clinical depression, such as lack of energy, little interest in doing things, sleep irregularity, trouble concentrating and feelings of hopelessness.
A study published in Medscape, a medical news journal, found that 5% of U.S. adults suffer from SAD every year. This depression can get in the way of students’ academic progress, according to SLCC counselor Scott Kadera, Ph.D.
“When we diagnose [any form of] depression or anxiety, part of that diagnosis is that it is negatively impacting social or occupational functions — like school or work — so if someone is having serious symptoms, it’s going to affect your ability to study, to go to class; it’s disruptive,” Kadera said. “It’s not that ‘you’re feeling bad,’ it’s that you’re not functioning how you normally would.”
Kadera said that SAD is predominantly linked with the lack of sunlight throughout the darker and colder months. According to Weather Spark, an online weather database, Utah’s cloudiest month on average is February, when the sky is overcast or cloudy 52% of the days.
Megan Malovich, an anthropology major at SLCC, said the overcast weather, dry air and freezing temperatures make the spring semester entirely harder than fall.
“If you don’t have any motivation to get up and do anything at all, the last thing you want to do is sit down and do math homework or write a paper,” Malovich said, noting that the onset of colder weather creates a feeling of sluggishness.
“I find getting up in the middle of a cold, depressing day with no plants, no sun and warmth very unmotivating to go to school and do what I need to do,” she said.
Kadera noted that the absence of regular sensory triggers can cause seasonal depression.
“It’s cold, it’s dark, people are inside so it’s quiet, there are no flowers in bloom, there is not a lot of smells; it’s sensory deprivation to me,” he said.
Since SAD returns annually, Kadera said that students can help notice the reoccurring symptoms of depression by being aware of their emotional wellbeing throughout the year.
Kadera encouraged students to remember SAD is common and to check in with themselves by asking, “Am I feeling like my normal self, or am I feeling a little down or tired?”
“Then, you can go get it checked out by a professional, and if it is determined to be SAD, there are treatments that can help,” he said.
Kadera said the main form of treatment for SAD is light therapy — which means exposing yourself to artificial light by sitting or working near a device called a light therapy box that “gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light.”
Sunlight is measured in lux, and individuals need at least 30 minutes of 10,000 lux (the measurement of mid-day summer sun) daily to help treat SAD, according to Kadera.
“The treatment is to sit in front of [the light box] in the morning for a half hour, seven days a week, and it has been shown to help,” he said. “Improvement can happen within a week, but the full effect can take 3-6 weeks.”
While living in Alaska — a state with extensive periods of darkness with few hours of daylight — Kadera said he and his coworkers combatted SAD by using their lunch hour to get outside.
“The sun wouldn’t come up until 10-10:30 a.m. and then by 2 p.m. it was dark again, so we had a three to three-and-a-half [hour] window of light, and we would all go walk around campus for a half hour,” he said.
Kadera suggested taking advantage of the sunny hours and days throughout the winter to help treat SAD.
For students struggling with their academics due to SAD, Kadera suggested visiting a counselor to try to get back on track. He noted that often, if students are unmotivated, it will be harder to concentrate and more likely they will miss class, and that studying does not sink in because their thinking has been compromised.
“With counseling, that [motivation] improves and it’s more like, ‘I’ve got a bit more energy, and I’m able to go to class and pay attention,’ and things start to sink in,” Kadera said.
More information and resources can be found at the Center for Health and Counseling.