Ohio winters may make students more prone to seasonal affective disorder

By Ella Koscher, ’15

“Having depression and SAD feels like drowning and being unable to catch your breath. It’s as if the weight of the world is on your shoulders and you can’t hold it up.”

This is how upperclassman Abby* describes her life with both depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD can affect people at any time of year as his or her body reacts to different seasons inefficiently. For Abby, that season is winter in Ohio.

It’s that time of year when the world is dead, gray and bare. The sun is barely up on Abby’s monotonous drives to UAHS each morning, making her world feel frozen.

For a majority of people, they are able to ignore the lack of color–the lack of green grass and blue skies–and withstand the wait for the first day of spring. Some may even prefer the season, finding every chance to hit the slopes or seek comfort next to a cozy fire.

For people like Abby, the usually cold and bleak winters in Ohio combined with a monotonous time stuck indoors or at school are so unbearable that they are affected by SAD.

Abby began going to counseling last school year for her anxiety, which led to her diagnosis of depression and SAD. Even though she is on medication for her depression, it worsens in the winter.

“I get the most depressed in the winter because I thrive when I’m outside and when the things around me are lively,” Abby said. “In the winter I feel like everything is dead and the short days throw off my sleep schedule and make me want to just lay in bed. I lose motivation in winter and I hate cold dark weather so I really suffer with less sunlight and the harsh Ohio winters.”

According to WebMD, symptoms of SAD in the winter can include less energy, trouble concentrating, fatigue, greater appetite, increased desire to be alone, greater need for sleep and weight gain. A person with SAD, however, does not necessarily identify with all of these symptoms.

Denise Deschenes, a senior staff psychiatrist at OSU Counseling and Consultation Services, said that there are a number of signs someone could have SAD, according to OSU’s The Lantern.

“Persons with SAD can experience significantly impaired daily functioning, hopelessness, helplessness and suicidal ideation,” Deschenes said. “SAD is real depression that carries a risk of suicide as with other types of depression.”

Counselor Matt Biedenbach and the administration are aware that depression and SAD is prevalent at UAHS; and since SAD is a type of depression, it is no exception to the risk of suicide. Therefore, the school tries to be proactive, educate and communicate with students.

“In the fall, we found that in Franklin County, in the past couple of years, [teen] suicides have gone up…,” Biedenbach said. “Fortunately, we haven’t lost anyone here, but…recognizing the signs of depression and mental health issues is a big step and hopefully we can be proactive.”

According to State Impact, Franklin County did see an increase in teen suicides in 2012, despite the fact that, nationally, youth suicide rates have trended downwards over the past decade. A contributor to this statistic may be that since Columbus is at the bottom 22nd percentile for days of sunshine in the U.S., students stuck in a classroom all day can be more prone to SAD.

According to The Lantern, OSU Professor of Psychiatry, Psychology and Nutrition Mary Fristad said, “Seasonal affective disorder is a biologically driven condition, and your daily body rhythms have gotten out of sync with the sun.”

Abby experiences withdrawal from the sun and explains how she attempts to deal with being out of sync with the weather and keep herself busy during the winter to keep her SAD and depression temporarily at bay.

“In the winter I try to surround myself with friends and get a good night’s sleep to feel better. I snowboard so this gives me an outdoor winter activity to look forward to. I also meditate and remind myself that each season is only temporary,” Abby said. “I try to find simple things such as taking a hot shower to look forward to. I watch the sunsets whenever they’re visible in the sky as a way to remind myself that the sun still exists in the winter. I pick out movies and books to read also to keep myself busy.”

No matter how much she keeps herself occupied though, Abby still longs to be outside.

“People in urban settings, working in windowless offices or who do not get outside as much can be more at risk,” Deschenes said. “People in the northern United States, Canada, Europe and Australia are most affected.”

Though Abby is not stuck inside an office all day, to her, being stuck at school can worsen her SAD as well as her depression.

“Depression had a very negative effect on my school work junior year before I started taking medication. I rarely went to school and had constant absences and felt like I couldn’t make it through a five day week,” Abby said. “There was a constant blank stare on my face and I didn’t want to be at school at all.”

Simple school assignments can feel like the heaviest burden, especially in the winter when Abby experiences clear symptoms of SAD such as fatigue and trouble concentrating.

“It feels like everyone is asking too much and it’s as if no one understands how hard life is,” Abby said. “It feels like drowning because I can’t reach my goals, I can’t complete my projects and I don’t know how to vocalize the panic and exhaustion I constantly feel. It’s like choking on responsibilities and feeling as if everyone else has it so easy.”

Once the seasons have changed and the world is alive again, Abby’s mood significantly brightens.

“Once the season changes back into spring, summer and fall I feel a lot better,” Abby said. “I take full advantage of the additional daylight and have so many more activities to participate in. The long days motivate me to be productive and I feel like the burden of school starts to lighten up.”

Though you may not necessarily be diagnosed with SAD, Abby advises her peers to not be afraid to speak up about this feeling because it is not uncommon to feel sad in the winter or in general. She also says that “[you should] not assume that you are weak or a coward for feeling vulnerable.”

“If how you’re feeling is affecting how you live, then that’s when you need to talk to somebody. And it could be it doesn’t automatically mean that you’re having that you’re going to be diagnosed with a mental health issue or depression or anything like that,” Biedenbach said. “But it’s at least a more positive step in trying to figure out why you feel the way you feel and how to invest in and cope and treat that.”

Image caption: A student looks outside onto a cold and dreary winter day. Some people’s bodies find it difficult to adjust to this season and are diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Image courtesy of Joana Croft