A student’s experience with Seasonal Affective Disorder

Grace Kowal and Madelyn Shapiro

For most of her life, junior Virginia Suardi eagerly awaited the winter. Between the snow, holiday atmosphere, her birthday, and hot chocolate, winter was her favorite time of the year. 

Then, when she started high school, all of her enjoyment of the changing seasons disappeared. “Every single day it just feels so heavy, and everything feels so dark, and I’m so tired all the time,” Suardi explained. “It just felt like an exaggerated version of what most people might feel.” 

But when spring came, all of these symptoms went away. “My mood was skyrocketing, and I was happy all the time,” she said. When this pattern reoccurred the following years, Suardi decided to research her symptoms and speak to a doctor. She was diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that follows the seasons, with symptoms of social withdrawal, fatigue, and lethargy beginning in the fall and alleviating in the spring. SAD symptoms are caused by a decrease in daylight and colder temperatures, resulting in an imbalance in melatonin and serotonin—the chemicals responsible for regulating sleep and mood.

It is estimated that six percent of people are affected by SAD, however social worker Lacey Maddrey explained that it is challenging to diagnose. “It is difficult to determine whether or not seasonal patterns are truly the only determinant of changes to depressive behaviors because high school students are unique in that several stressors can be relieved over the summer for them, shifting their moods and ability to cope with everyday difficulties,” she said.

SAD is treated similarly to major depression, through the use of weekly cognitive behavioral therapy sessions and changes to routine that increase “socialization, engagement in extracurricular activities, and… exercise,” explained Maddrey. Another potential treatment is daily exposure to a light box that mimics the effects of sunlight. Suardi copes with SAD by keeping a vigilant sleep schedule, frequently exercising, and spending lots of time in the sunlight.

Unlike most mental disorders, little research has been done on SAD, especially among teens. Because it only lasts in seasons with less sunlight, many consider it less legitimate than other mental disorders. There are also varying degrees of severity to the disorder. “I know a lot of people who have minor or muted symptoms of SAD, but I think generally it’s uncommon to have it so intensely that you actually get diagnosed with it,” Suardi said.

SAD is known to have detrimental effects on teen’s social and academic lives. “It usually takes a lot more effort to focus in class, and sometimes I find myself getting behind on schoolwork,” Suardi elaborated. Furthermore, depression and exhaustion can cause social isolation, hurting the relationships of those with SAD. 

“If you are experiencing any changes in mood or behavior or suspect a friend or loved one is, please come see one of the mental health staff here at school to assist with getting support,” Maddrey said. “Take care of yourselves and each other and please do not hesitate to stop by if you have any questions or concerns about the state of things in your life.”