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Is this not the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” for you?

December 13, 2021

As the season turns to a cold, snowy winter, many Chicago area residents prepare to delight in the activities of the season – holidays to celebrate, hills to sled, ice rinks to skate and of course, a visit from the jolly old man himself.

Unfortunately, not everyone is full of good cheer this time of year. The absence of sunlight and long, cold days can put anyone into a funk—some more than others. We asked Marie Kurnick, LCSW, manager of Outpatient & Case Management Services in Behavioral Health Services at NCH to explain what is commonly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and when and how to get help.

Q: What is SAD?
Formerly known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, the official diagnosis is Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern.

To be diagnosed with SAD, a person must meet the following criteria:

  • They must have symptoms of major depression (i.e. losing interest in activities once enjoyed, changes in appetite or weight, problems with sleep, feeling sluggish or agitated, low energy, feeling hopeless or worthless, difficulty concentrating, and frequent thoughts of death or suicide).
  • The depressive episodes must occur during specific seasons (i.e., only during the winter months or the summer months) for at least two consecutive years.
  • The episodes must be much more frequent than other depressive episodes that the person may have had at other times of the year during their lifetime.

Q: What makes SAD different than other mental health conditions?
SAD is a sub-type of depression, which is a larger grouping of symptoms that indicate a person is struggling to function due to emotional distress. SAD is often associated with the winter season but also has a summer pattern. SAD can go undiagnosed because people associate their symptoms with the “winter blues,” however it has unique markers such as oversleeping, overeating, weight gain and social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”).

Q: Why does SAD affect some but not others? (Are children affected by it?)
SAD occurs in about 5% of Americans, and impacts more women than men. SAD is also more prevalent in people with a co-occurring mental health disorder including major depressive disorder, bipolar disorders, attention deficit disorders or anxiety disorders. SAD typically develops in young adulthood and is not often diagnosed in children.

Q: Is SAD treatable?
Yes! Individuals diagnosed with SAD benefit from several treatment options. Light therapy, antidepressant medication, psychotherapy and vitamin D are all effective treatments for SAD, and often highly effective when a combination of them are used.

Q: Does a person’s vitamin D levels have anything to do with SAD, and if so, are there safe supplements to boost vitamin D?
SAD is not directly caused by a vitamin D deficiency. Some studies have found taking a vitamin D supplement to help, but others have not. Additional research on this is being conducted but other treatments have proven to be more effective.

Q: Since SAD typically strikes during the late fall, is there a way you can prepare for it?
Yes. Since SAD is linked to specific seasons, individuals often begin preparing for their symptoms in early fall. For example, if light therapy was effective for you last year, you might begin your light therapy a few weeks earlier than your symptoms presented last year as a way to prevent symptoms or lessen their severity. Staying connected to your support system, sticking to a good sleep routine, eating well and regular exercise are all great ways to prepare.

Q: Does living in areas of more sunshine, like Florida and California, decrease the likelihood of SAD?
Those living closer to the equator have lower incidences of SAD. Since the days are longer and exposure to sunlight is longer, research suggests this is part of why these areas have decreased rates of SAD.

Q: What are OTT lights and do they help with SAD?
OTT Lights are a brand of natural sunlight bulbs intended to replicate natural sunlight indoors. They are recommended as part of light therapy treatment. Light therapy consists of sitting in front of a bright light every day for about 30 to 45 minutes, usually in the morning for the duration of the winter season.

Q: Can a person diagnosed with SAD just “snap out of it?”
Unfortunately, because SAD is associated with seasons which are months long, a person cannot “snap out of it.” As with other types of depression, consistent treatment is needed in order to see improvement. Speaking with a mental health clinician or psychiatrist can help determine the best treatment plan for each individual.

Q: Does NCH Behavioral Health offer any treatment options for SAD?
NCH offers a range of services that address a variety of mental health conditions, including SAD. Since SAD is a type of depression, and its treatments align with other effective treatments for depression, this can easily be incorporated into the patient’s goals. NCH offers acute inpatient hospitalization, partial hospitalization program, intensive outpatient programming and psychotherapy and psychiatry clinic appointments.

To contact NCH Behavioral Health Services call 847-HEALING (847-432-5464).