As we enter wintertime, the air is becoming icier and the sun is setting sooner. For some students, this season marks more than just a change in weather, but also a shift in mental health.
For college students moving to Idaho from predominantly sunny states, Seasonal Affective Disorder is something to monitor.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, often referred to as SAD, is when a person experiences a pattern of depression symptoms that correlate with the change of seasons.
Mattie, a Boise State student who moved from San Diego, California, hadn’t understood how mentally taxing the cold weather could be until she moved to Boise.
“When I moved to Boise I had never experienced winters like this before,” Mattie said. “Back home, the lowest it would get was like 50 degrees max. I moved to Boise, and the sun would set at like 5 p.m. and walking to class was freezing cold. It was really hard to find motivation to come to class when it was snowing and I had to walk, then I just spiraled down mentally too.”
According to Erin Liday, a certified clinical social worker and therapist in the Boise area, SAD is not a standalone diagnosis and can be a symptom of other major depressive disorders. The weather can also impact mood disorders other than depression.
“SAD can drastically affect someone’s academic performance. I mean, the core of depression includes a lack of internal motivation,” Liday said. “There is often sleep disturbances, lack of self-esteem and suicidal ideation. Many college students may lean on alcohol to cope with these symptoms in the winter, which could bring additional challenges.”
In 2011, the National Institute of Mental Health surveyed that 30% of college students reported feeling “so depressed it was hard to function.”
“I found my energy was just absolutely drained,” Mattie said. “I couldn’t get out of bed or get myself to do work. My grades were really impacted by this. I started turning all my assignments in late. It got to a point where I had to reach out to my professors and tell them that I was not doing well and get extensions.”
Millions of adults suffer from SAD, though the condition often begins in young adulthood and is more likely to affect women than men.
“Funny enough, the only clients who have discussed SAD symptoms with me have been college students. Not sure what that says, but that’s the pattern I’ve seen,” Liday said.
Individuals living in colder climates, like those in Idaho, often exhibit symptoms of SAD. Blaine County and Lemhi County, in particular, are high-risk areas for developing SAD.
“I didn’t even know what seasonal depression was until I moved to Idaho,” Mattie said. “I didn’t totally understand what it felt like until the sun started setting earlier and the days got colder.”
About 5% of adults in the U.S experience SAD 40% of the year. The most difficult month for people tends to be January or February.
“I imagine that many students coming from hotter climates have a really big reality check if they go to college in a state that has colder temperatures,” Mattie said. “It’s hard to explain if you did grow up somewhere that’s ‘summer all year round,’ but you just can’t mentally prepare yourself for the toll cold weather takes on your mental health.”
For college students, SAD is particularly troublesome. Unlike the more regular routines of high school, college students tend to stay up later and sleep in longer, making it harder to receive the Vitamin D needed to ward off SAD symptoms, especially in the winter months.
“The number one tool I would recommend to a student in this situation is to lean heavily on their social network,” Liday said. “I conceptualize depression as a disorder that primarily revolves around isolation. The sadder a person becomes, the more they withdraw from their community, which in turn makes the depression worse … If you can build in some structure that requires you to see others regularly throughout your week, it will be easier to withstand the winter.”
According to Liday, professors and college faculty need to pay attention to signs of depression or failing grades, and referring students to counseling services or tutoring services is a step in the right direction. More so, talking openly about mental health in the classroom is pertinent.