Experts, students talk seasonal depression: How to cope and resources available

By Donata Massimiani, Senior Staff Writer

As days grow shorter, temperatures grow colder and the sky becomes a sea of gray, finding motivation to complete schoolwork or get out of bed each morning can seem like a difficult task, especially for students like Daniel Dominick suffering from seasonal affective disorder. 

“It’s a lot harder for me to get out of bed when it’s cold,” Dominick, a senior psychology major, said. “Not because the weather makes my bed so comfortable, I just have less motivation for my day.” 

SAD is a form of depression where depressive episodes begin in the fall or winter months and end in the spring or summer, according to Kathryn Roecklein, an assistant professor of psychology. She said in rare cases, individuals may experience mania or hypomania in the spring and summer months. Roecklein also noted that symptoms of SAD are consistent with those of depression depressed mood, loss of interest, eating more or less than usual, sleeping more or less than usual, feeling hopeless or having suicidal thoughts. 

Dominick said spending time outdoors on days with a high UV index and getting in the habit of following a daily routine has helped him cope when he starts experiencing symptoms of SAD, such as loss of interest and motivation and feelings of gloom.

“Eating at the same time, making sure all my meals have proper nutrition and going to the gym consistently helped a lot,” Dominick said. 

Pitt spokesperson Janine Fisher said Pitt offers a wide range of services and resources for students who may experience “seasonal mood changes,” which include Therapy Assistance Online, creative activities, recreational activities, the stress-free zone, the University Counseling Center’s wellness workshops, UCC group counseling and UCC individual counseling

“If a student is unsure which resource may be the best fit, they are encouraged to utilize UCC’s drop-in services, Monday through Friday, 9 to 4 p.m., where they’ll work with a counselor to develop a personalized care plan that best supports their needs,” Fisher said. 

Roecklein said Michael Young, a retired Illinois Institute of Technology professor of psychology, completed a study where he looked at “all” of the possible environmental variables that could cause SAD. According to Roecklein, he found that the times of “dusk and dawn” triggered SAD the most in comparison to other variables such as global solar radiation and cloud cover temperature. 

“[The] timing of dawn gets later and the timing of dusk gets earlier right up until about the solstice, which is December 21st, and then it starts to get longer again,” Roecklein said. “So it’s these short winter days.” 

Another possible cause of SAD, according to Roecklein, is possessing less sensitive light receptors in the retina the part of the eye responsible for perceiving sunlight. She said this is the topic her lab studies, initially wanting an answer as to why everyone in Pittsburgh experiences the same short winter days, but only some individuals remain at risk for developing SAD. 

If you have a less sensitive receptor, it’s fine in the summer when there’s plenty of light,” Roecklein said. “But then in winter when the environmental light levels fall — there’s a threshold — and they fall below that threshold, then that may trigger the winter depression.” 

Roecklein said the three treatments “supported by evidence” for SAD are bright light therapy, antidepressants, such as Wellbutrin, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Bright light therapy involves using a light box or light lamp at the same time each morning, and a psychologist “prescribes” the length of time to utilize the light device, according to Roecklein. 

“People typically start using them in the fall, around when they expect their symptoms to begin, and may discontinue in spring when they’re starting to feel fine,” Roecklein said. 

The Health Sciences Library System (HSLS) offers seven light therapy boxes for borrowing, originally purchased for library circulation by the Medical Student Association in 2015, according to Julia Reese, HSLS technology integration services administrator. She said anyone with a valid Pitt ID can access these boxes by visiting the technology help desk on the second floor of Falk library. 

Stephanie Fletcher, a senior psychology and English writing double major and member of Pitt’s Active Minds, said self-care practices are useful when coping with SAD. Fletcher said the most helpful include going outside when the sun is out, exercising outdoors, keeping a consistent sleep schedule by going to sleep at the same time every night and making sure to “eat well” every day. She also recommended using the resources offered by the UCC. 

“The University Counseling Center has a couple of group therapy options that could address symptoms of seasonal affective disorder,” Fletcher said. “There’s an emotion management group on Mondays from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m., and a group called Making Friends with Yourself on Wednesdays from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m.” 

Roecklein said it’s important to emphasize that SAD is not different from depression, and anyone who gets treatment for depression can also get treatment for SAD. She also said the UCC and many psychologists in the community are experts at treating all types of depression and recommended students seek help if they experience symptoms. 

“If you do, it can really improve your school performance, your physical health, your social relationships and all aspects of your life,” Roecklein said. “There’s no reason to just suffer and wait for spring when there’s so many good treatments.”