Winter brings increased rate of depression

Courtney Lewis

As the days grow shorter, seasonal affective disorder swells among populations living at higher latitudes, even if the snow doesn’t fall and the winds don’t chill.

SAD, often mistaken by people as the winter blues, has gained more attention recently by psychiatrists as a legitimate psychological ailment.

“There are higher incidences with younger people, so college students are more vulnerable,” said Linda Muldoon, a psychologist with the University’s Counseling and Consulting Center. Muldoon said she’s diagnosed approximately the same number of SAD cases this year because the disorder is triggered by shorter days, not colder weather.

Twenty-five percent of Minnesotans have some seasonal mood changes, but SAD is medically distinguished as general winter malaise.

Symptoms include extreme fatigue, overeating, loss of interest in sex, headaches, loss of energy and difficulty concentrating.

Students who feel depressed at this time of year might not have SAD. Muldoon said other factors that might cause symptoms of depression, such as negative feelings about the holidays, dislike about being cooped up indoors and anxiety about finals.

Those seasonal concerns, coupled with post-Sept. 11 trauma, have made this winter difficult for some students.

“Visits have definitely been up this year,” said Dave Golden, a community health specialist at Boynton Health Service.

According to a Boynton survey conducted last spring, 14 percent of students at the University said they have been diagnosed with depression. Muldoon said those who typically have depression often also have SAD.

Muldoon said women have a greater chance of getting SAD and major depression than men do.

SAD can be treated by medications that are used for major depression, but the best treatment is light therapy.

Candy Price, a psychiatric social worker at Boynton, said light-therapy boxes have been a big help to people suffering from SAD. The boxes have a higher intensity light bulb, which the patient sits near for a specific amount of time at a set time of day.

Price said insurance sometimes will cover the cost of the boxes, which can be priced at more than $100. Light therapy can also be used for jet lag because, “It resets the internal clock,” Muldoon said.

If symptoms have been appearing for two or more consecutive winters, Price said, it is definitely worth talking to someone at Boynton or the University Counseling and Consulting Center in Eddy Hall.

“I know one woman who is a senior who says February is just hell for her,” Muldoon said.

Courtney Lewis welcomes comments at [email protected]