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Recognizing the Shadowy Symptoms of Seasonal Depression

While the recent, atypical 60-degree December weather may suggest otherwise, this time of year is a common struggle for people coming from warmer climates, enduring their first frigid Boston winter. As days are getting shorter and light seems to subside into what feels like infinite hours of darkness, many people struggle with seasonal depression—commonly referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD is a condition affecting many people yet it often goes unnoticed. It is much more prevalent in cold, northern climates. Especially in a college environment with people coming from all over the country, seasonal depression can affect many of our closest friends who have migrated north.

One Californian studying at Boston College who wishes to remain anonymous says, “For me, some days are really gloomy because the sun sets so much earlier. It affects your mood a lot.” More light-heartedly, he continues, “I miss going out in t-shirts and shorts everyday.”

Indeed, many of us can miss flip-flop and t-shirt weather, even those of us not necessarily coming from warmer climates. It is natural to have gloomy days, but people not suffering from SAD most often recover from this dismal mood quickly—the gloomy days don’t persist for as long as the bad weather does.

On the contrary, those suffering from seasonal depression deal with more prolonged symptoms that make ordinary pastimes and the day-to-day routine seem difficult and unachievable. Symptoms may include fatigue, feeling depressed or hopeless, a lack of interest in previous hobbies, problems with social interaction and irritability. In addition to these emotional symptoms there are several physical side effects, which include dietary changes, headaches, depleted energy and even insomnia.

Causes of SAD are often rooted deeper than just experiencing bleak weather conditions. In a recent Huffington Post article, Professor Michelle Riba of the University of Michigan’s Depression Center argues that the root cause of SAD is most often associated with clinical depression or bipolar depression, claiming, “for people who see a regular pattern every year of getting sad, anxious or a cycling of moods, the first thing they need to do is to see someone to get an overall diagnosis” in order to “treat the underlying depression.”

SAD treatments vary from light therapy to medication or talk therapy. However, the optimal treatment differs from person to person; some methods are more effective than others depending on an individual’s personal preference and personality type. Regardless of the most applicable method of treating SAD, “any active treatment is better than nothing,” concludes Riba.

So what can we do about SAD? How are we able to detect whether our friends are affected by it? Unfortunately, determining whether someone has SAD or not is hard to discern, even among professional physicians. It often takes time before professionals in the field can even diagnose this mental health condition. Of course as college students, we are not expected to be high-level experts, rather, both as informed individuals and conscientious friends, we have a duty to recognize these signs and encourage our friends to seek professional help.

The best thing we can do is be aware of the potential symptoms in our friends and within ourselves, ultimately feeling assured in the knowledge that we know what to look for in the people we care about.