Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a sleeping giant lying dormant for three-quarters of the year. With winter on the horizon and with days getting shorter and darker, people begin to feel less energy, are less likely to be productive and begin to feel hopeless. These are common symptoms of SAD — a type of depression set apart by a seasonal pattern.
Symptoms of depression exist on a spectrum, and can range from a change in appetite to having thoughts of self-harm or contemplating suicide. Other depressive symptoms can include trouble sleeping, a loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed and feeling hopeless.
"People with seasonal affective disorder unfortunately often don't get diagnosed unless their symptoms of depression get very severe" said Dr. Jason Hunziker, chief of Adult Psychiatry Division at University of Utah Health. Often being dismissed as the "winter blues," these symptoms can worsen if they go untreated.
"This is very unfortunate as treatment can be quite successful for these patients, particularly once they recognize the seasonal pattern to their symptoms," Hunziker said.
In 2016, there were an estimated 10 million Americans affected by SAD, but now that number has jumped to almost 19 million — roughly 6 percent of the U.S. population. Additionally, 14 percent of U.S. adults suffer from milder versions of SAD and other mood disorders.
In a state that boasts the "greatest snow on earth," winter should arguably be the most wonderful time of the year. But for people in Utah, there is a greater chance of developing SAD due to the geographical latitude and that risk creeps higher when minimal sunlight gets obstructed even further by the inversion.
There is no singular known cause of SAD, but there are some biological indicators. These can include producing too much melatonin and difficulty regulating serotonin levels. Other risk factors can include already having a mood disorder or a family history of depression or bipolar disorder.
"Younger adults in their 20s and those patients in the geriatric population are also at increased risk of seasonal affective disorder," Hunziker said.
Light therapy, medication, and even giant mirrors (if you live in Rjukan, Norway) have yielded some positive results when it comes to combating the effects of SAD. But even simple steps such as getting outside and being physically active, as well as incorporating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains into your diet, may do a world of good. Additional resources such as counseling may help if symptoms are severe.
You also can seek help from a crisis line like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), which offers counseling for depression, anxiety as well as any other mental health issues. If you are a Utah student or educator, SafeUT is a statewide crisis service that provides real-time crisis intervention to youth through texting and a confidential tip program right from your smartphone. Licensed clinicians respond 24/7 to all incoming chats, texts, and calls by providing supportive or crisis counseling, suicide prevention, and referral service.
People can be diagnosed and get help for SAD, "anywhere that we have medical providers," Hunziker said. Hunziker says there is no reason for patients to suffer in the wintertime.
"The important thing to stress is that there are successful treatments for the symptoms," he said. "People should make sure that there talking to their primary care providers if they feel the symptoms recur every year.”
If you or someone you love is struggling, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), provides free 24/7 crisis response assistance to individuals experiencing emotional distress or psychiatric crisis. This crisisline is staffed by University of Utah Health licensed crisis clinicians.