Seasonal Affective Disorder and the Alaskan student

When the leaves fall off the trees and the days get shorter, nearly 10 percent of all Alaskans experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, more commonly known as seasonal depression. Women and young people are most at risk when it comes to experiencing SAD. Symptoms include mood changes, difficulty waking up in the morning, nausea, oversleeping and over eating, weight gain, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, withdrawal from social activities and decreased libido.

“Symptoms are the same as major depression, although they do lean toward the hibernating bear direction, such as craving for carbohydrates and sweets, insomnia and disturbed sleep but a tendency to oversleep, daytime drowsiness, fatigue, decreased libido, diminished interest and pleasure, perhaps some low self-worth and perhaps some anxiety-related problems such as irritability and social avoidance. Not much fun.” Suzanne Strisik, a clinical psychologist and the director of the Psychological Services Center for UAA master’s students said.

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These symptoms, although mild, can lead to depression, feelings of hopelessness, insomnia, anxiety and in more serious cases thoughts of suicide.

The causes of SAD are linked to the lack of light associated with winter time.

“Basically, seasonal affective disorder is a component of Major Depressive Disorder. It’s a seasonal component related to decrease in sunlight, either because of short winter days, think Alaska, or because of overcast skies, think Seattle,” Strisik said. “Circadian rhythms are disrupted, because of the lack of light on the skin, particularly the face and forehead, causing a decrease in the production of, among other things, neurotransmitters, like Serotonin.”

Seasonal Affective Disorder and the winter blues that come with cold dark days seem to be synonymous with each other, but in fact few people experience SAD. Roughly six percent of the U.S. is affeced by SAD, whereas 14 percent of the population is affected by the more common winter blues, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

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“I’m a bit of a skeptic about Seasonal Affective Disorder, at least as the general public understands it. Most people think it means “winter blues” but research on winter depression and anxiety is surprisingly mixed. You can find studies that show more depression and anxiety in the winter than other times of years, but you can also find other studies that fail to find that winter affect, and some that actually show a bigger effect in the summer. It might be a case of researchers and the public counting the hits and ignoring the misses,” John Petraitis, associate dean of social sciences and UAA psychology professor, said.

However, for those students who are experiencing symptoms of SAD they have multiple resources on campus to go to for guidance. The Care Team as well as the Student Health and Counseling Center are both resources offered to students for free or severely discounted rates. If a student visits the Care Team, the Care Team will go over and educate the student on SAD, help them facilitate a physical and get them in contact with some form of therapy.

“Getting a physical is a very important part of treatment. A Care Team member could help them communicate with their provider or give them referrals to the Student Health and Counselling Center or other providers. A Care Team member would let them know where they can obtain a SAD light and give them some literature about the best uses for it and the risks of it and recommend that they talk to their medical provider about the use, keep a log of mood, sleep, energy etc. to bring to a medical appointment,” Lisa Terwilliger, Care Team coordinator, said.

Whether you think you are experiencing symptoms of SAD or just the winter blues, Suzanne Strisik, clinical psychologist, offers some advice for students to alleviate those feelings.

“Try Vitamin D supplements with physician’s guidance, regular exercise, start easy, if you’re not used to it, like 5-15 minutes, once or twice a day and increase gradually. Connecting with friends or meeting new friends for walks or coffee. Avoid sad movies and television shows and too much time alone,” Strisik said. “If you study alone for long periods of time, schedule short breaks for short meet-ups and conversations with friends.”

SAD affects women four times more often than men, and young people between the ages of 20 and 30 are most at risk. Here in Alaska, students are most at risk and need to be most weary of their mental health.