The basics of seasonal affective disorder, and when you should seek help

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment guidance. For immediate support call Good2Talk at 1-866-925-5454, or the Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600. For non-urgent support, you can access the Student Academic Success Service’s Counselling and Coaching service by filling out the online form. The UOHS mental health department also offers services to those seeking on-campus support.  

It’s easy to dismiss unusual mood changes we experience as just part of the stress that comes with writing exams and submitting final papers. But you shouldn’t diminish your own judgement. If you feel your mood is off, it might be more than just a bad week.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) accounts for roughly 10 per cent of total cases of depression in Canada, and two to three per cent of Canadians overall  will experience it. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) notes that you may be struggling with SAD “if you find that you feel like a completely different person depending on the season.”

In a nutshell, this disorder involves increased depression due to changes in the time of year. Often, according to the CMHA, people are most impacted by it when the days get shorter in the fall and winter.

It’s not entirely clear why SAD happens, but there are a number of factors that can increase the likelihood of its development in different people. Perhaps the most evident factor is your circadian rhythm, or “biological clock,” which can be thrown off by the earlier loss of sunlight.

Another aspect to consider is serotonin, a neurotransmitter with strong ties to mood maintenance, which can decrease as our body experiences less sunlight. Finally, the changing seasons can disrupt melatonin, a very important hormone for regulating sleep.

Together, these elements can set the stage for SAD onset in the fall and winter months. When these changes happen in your body, according to the CMHA, SAD manifests itself in a number of ways—including oversleeping, insomnia, changes in appetite, sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest in activities you normally enjoy.

Although these symptoms may not indicate anything serious if they occur for a short period of time, the CMHA recommends seeing a doctor if “some of these feelings seem to happen each year, have a real impact on your life, and improve during certain seasons.”

The CMHA further notes that it’s important not to diagnose yourself, since SAD has many symptoms in common with depression and other disorders.

However, what’s interesting about SAD is that traditional therapy and medication aren’t the only courses of treatment. According to the CHMA, 60 to 80 per cent of those who suffer with SAD find “substantial relief” from light therapy. This treatment involves sitting near a special kind of light for about 30 minutes per day, to trigger a chemical change in the brain. This in turn improves mood and helps relieve SAD symptoms for many. Again, a doctor must diagnose the patient with SAD and approve such a treatment, as there can be side effects to light therapy.

For students at the University of Ottawa, a SAD lamp is available right on campus at the University of Ottawa Health Services (UOHS) office in the University Centre. In an email to the Fulcrum, a UOHS promotion representative noted that the SAD lamp is available to all students and staff on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The UOHS promotions team did not respond to the Fulcrum’s request for any further information.

Even if you don’t plan on using the SAD lamp anytime soon, there are a few simple ways to get some sunlight back into your life. Spending time outdoors, sitting near windows when indoors, keeping your blinds open to let light into your home, and exercising are all ways to fight SAD, or the regular old winter blues, without much change to your busy schedule.  

Although it can feel impossible when faced with the stress of finals, holiday planning, and whatever else is on your plate, it’s imperative that we take the time to check in with ourselves and monitor our moods. If you feel that mood changes are affecting your success in academics, relationships, or elsewhere, don’t be afraid to seek support. Seasons may change, but your mental wellbeing doesn’t have to.