Gray skies bring SAD

By Larissa Gula

As Pittsburgh’s weather turns grim, Ann Stone finds it harder and harder to stay awake during… As Pittsburgh’s weather turns grim, Ann Stone finds it harder and harder to stay awake during the last push to get her art degree.

The Carnegie Mellon student drags herself out of bed in the morning and starts to feel sleepy by 6 or 7 p.m. Even though she said it “sounds ridiculous,” she finds that gray skies always seem to put her in a melancholic or lethargic mood, making it difficult to do the things she loves, like reading and writing.

While it’s not uncommon for students to feel a bit lethargic as they transition back into their classes, for some people, behavior like Stone’s is a sign of seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD.

SAD is a type of mood disorder and is recognized as recurring depression with seasonal onset and seasonal remission, said Marian Vanek, director of Student Health Service.

Symptoms of both SAD and depression include depressed mood, decreased interest in activities once found enjoyable, loss of focus and attention, increased or decreased appetite, hypersomnia (oversleeping), lack of energy and social withdrawal. The difference between the two is that SAD only occurs during a set time of the year.

Though she has never been diagnosed with SAD or depression, Stone admits that she sometimes displays all of these symptoms. But the symptoms do not always mean a student has depression or SAD, explained Tevya Zukor, the director of Pitt’s Counseling Center.

The disorder, commonly and incorrectly referred to as the “winter blues,” is a form of depression that occurs around the same time each year, typically beginning in October or November and subsiding around March or April.

Though it comes and goes with winter, experts still aren’t entirely sure what triggers SAD. It’s believed that the decreased amount of light in the winter could contribute, Vanek said.

Some treatments for the disorder, like those for depression, involve therapy and medication. Others, however, center on the use of light as a medication. Some people might use special light boxes during certain times of the day or begin waking to alarm clocks, with the intention of being exposed to more light, in which their environment might naturally be lacks.

This is reflected in the prevalence of SAD in different states. The occurrence rate in Maine might be as high as 10 percent, while in Florida it’s as low as 2 percent. Pittsburgh ranks in between at around a 6 or 7 percent occurrence rate, Zukor said.

Data and studies about SAD are fairly limited, but experts estimate that it affects as low as 0 percent and as high as 9.7 percent, depending on the region. Because it’s related to wintry conditions associated with changing seasons, populations up north tend to be more affected, Vanek said.

Some definitions of the disease add that SAD commonly develops in young adults, particularly those in their early twenties.

But Zukor questions whether the disease truly develops at this age or whether, instead, it’s simply identified at this age after a pattern of depression is observed.

To be diagnosed, a person with SAD must demonstrate a clear history of developing depression during a specific time of the year, Zukor said. If no pattern presents itself, some people might be treated for depression instead, because the symptoms are so similar.

“The expression I use is, there is a difference between depression and ‘sad things make me sad,’” Zukor said. “Everyone has a bad day and could show similar symptoms [to depression] just because of that.

“The real mark we use to try to figure out when something is depression, is … when people experience a lot of those symptoms for a couple of weeks or so, and it begins to interfere with their life. Then it isn’t a temporary problem.”

Stress is also a major trigger, according to Zukor, who believes the stress levels of students explains why many people begin to notice SAD in college.

“When we think about the stress we experience as students, it makes sense,” he said. “We have the stress of a semester ending. We have the stress of graduation. And during the summer, while there’s stress, it’s a bit different than the academic pressure and responsibilities people have during the rest of the year.”

Treating the disorder can involve certain devices, like the therapeutic lightboxes, that most other disorders do not require.

The person with SAD will sit near a light therapy box, which gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light.

“Light therapy basically involves a full-spectrum light,” Zukor explained. “Students who spend time under this light for 30 to 45 minutes every morning tend to report a big increase in their moods.”

Pitt’s Counseling Center has light boxes for student use. Light therapy, however, requires a daily time commitment. For some students, sunrise clocks are a better option and treatment, Zukor said.

“It’s an alarm clock that mimics the sunrise,” he said. “You set an alarm, but instead of beeping, the alarm begins building light intensity and mimicking a sunrise. Most of them come along with audible alarms. And it’s very interesting because they really seem to work. Most of the work, though, happens in your brain before you wake up.”

Zukor expects that many students, Stone included, will feel considerably better later in the year as well.

“March tends to be the month we have spring break, and I always go somewhere warm and sunny,” Stone said. “I come back feeling much better, no matter how the weather is in Pittsburgh.”

But Zukor stresses that anyone who wants or needs help should always use any resources Pitt has to offer.

“Someone who has had depression understands that big difference between having a bad day and being depressed,” he said.

Students who think they have depression or SAD should make appointments either at the Student Health Service or the Counseling Center.