Seasonal Affective Disorder diagnoses on the rise

A new Student Health survey shows diagnoses have nearly doubled in recent years.

by Kristina Busch

The onset of winter brings colder weather, shorter days and — for many people — the blues.
The number of seasonal affective disorder diagnoses rose this year in University of Minnesota students, according to the Boynton Health Service 2015 College Student Health Survey, and some experts say it could be due to an increased awareness among doctors of the mental health issue.
The number of students diagnosed has nearly doubled since 2007, jumping from 2.8 percent to 5.5 percent this year, Boynton Chief Medical Officer Gary Christenson said.
Many of those students were diagnosed before entering college, he said. 
“The classic definition of SAD is that it’s a major depression that has a clear seasonal onset,” he said. “As light becomes lower, the depression comes on.”
SAD, however, differs from traditional depression symptomatically, Christenson said. 
“SAD has an increased need for sleep rather than insomnia,” he said. “There is an increase in cravings rather than a loss of appetite, and weight is gained rather than lost.” 
Those affected by SAD are sometimes more sensitive or can take things more personally, Christenson said.
Because the start of school and the influx of colder weather align in cold-climate regions, knowing when to diagnose SAD over stress can be challenging, he said.
SAD can be prevented by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, like eating healthfully and getting enough sleep, University psychiatry professor Paul Arbisi said. 
For those affected, light therapy is the best treatment, he said. 
Patients can buy light boxes designed for light therapy and use them for about 30 minutes daily to treat their symptoms, Christenson said. Sometimes, a doctor may prescribe antidepressants or therapy, too.
Though some use tanning to treat symptoms, he said it’s not medically backed and, therefore, not recommended, as there’s a risk of damage to the eyes and skin from the UV light.
Still, Christenson recommends students get creative when looking for light to avoid SAD.
“Take a walk during the day when the sun is at its highest, increase the light in your room by setting a timer when the sun peeks through the windows or use a simulator that increases light in your room if you cannot buy a light box,” he said.