Sadness: How Is the Bad Weather Affecting You?

by Zersha Munir

We’ve reached that bleak stage of winter, long past Christmas cheer and candy cane crunching, where we’re still braving the freezing temperatures to get to and from class. Outside the Cathedral, a student asks, “are we done yet?” and is already imagining summer break, even though it’s the first day of the spring semester. Passing peers don winter gear to combat the cold; but while these items prevent loss of heat, they can’t stop the lousy feeling that often sweeps across campus as a consequence of the weather. For most, it’s a simple case of the winter blues: wanting to stay in and eat a bit more instead of braving the walk to class. But for others, winter can bring on a more extreme version of these feelings, which can indicate a more serious condition known as seasonal depression.

I bet you've heard a friend complain that they were “depressed” after not receiving a coveted gift for Christmas. The feeling described is more likely a mild disappointment rather than a crippling mental state. The concept of depression is often misappropriated—or neglected—by today’s college students. During the winter months, people are especially susceptible to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a subset of depression caused by the lack of sunlight. It is a myth that low levels of Vitamin D cause SAD. Rather, the lack of sunlight during the winter months is linked with low serotonin levels and changes in circadian rhythms, both of which contribute to SAD. While it’s normal finals week procedure to eat more, sleep less, and skip the workouts to study, if this behavior occurs extendedly and in conjunction with a depressed mood or an excessive loss of interest, you may be suffering from SAD.

SAD is a major depressive disorder but is frequently misconstrued as a minor form of depression because of its resemblance to the ”winter blues.” Prominent symptoms of SAD include fatigue, guilt, inability to concentrate, suicidality, and significant changes in weight, sleep, or activity.

Pitt's licensed clinical psychologist Kathryn Roecklein, Ph.D., informs us that SAD can be treated by three empirical and research supported methods: light therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or antidepressants.

You've probably heard of the Sunbox company's light therapy products, which range from glowing Sunboxes to a Digital SunRise Clock, which gradually increases in brightness to start your day off on the sunny side. The effectiveness of these products, however, depends on their proper use. Roecklein strongly advises consulting a professional to determine the optimum usage of light therapy products per individual in terms of frequency, duration, and overall extended period for application.

Depression is a condition that cannot be ignored or powered through, but its symptoms can be alleviated with professional help. Pitt's Counseling Center is an on-campus resource that can provide support and tailored treatments. It is important for students to monitor their mental health not only for purposes of productivity, but because there is a strong link between depression and suicide. Statistics listed by the National Institute of Mental Health state that roughly 80 percent of college students reported feeling depressed in 2011 and that suicide was the third leading cause of death for young people within this same age range. SAD is often overlooked as a form of clinical depression, and so psychologists encourage patients to come in for an evaluation if they feel changes in mood.

Winter only lasts for several months, but Pitt's counselors can help patients form a long-term plan to handle depression. The Counseling Center offers a two-week light therapy box trial with three sessions per week. If the trial is successful, students will be provided with further information on obtaining additional therapy.

If you've felt changes in your mood and feel comfortable talking about them, sign up for an individual counseling session to talk out your concerns. It definitely beats posting paragraph-long rants on Facebook. Don't want to go it alone? Pitt's Clinical Psychology Center offers cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy for groups and individuals, along with medication and psychological testing. Talking depression over with a group can help alleviate your anxieties and any feelings of alienation because others are expressing the same concerns.

Alleviating depression takes time, assistance, and commitment. If you're concerned the winter months are getting you down more than you think they should, and perhaps your mood stays somber beginning with the first brisk winter day, consider taking little steps toward improving your mental health. Eventually, even when Phil the Groundhog grants us six more weeks of winter and you still haven't landed the perfect date for Valentine's Day, you'll be able to look on the bright side. Engaging with your environment to stay mentally and physically active is important for everyone during the winter chill, but even more so for battling the symptoms of seasonal depression. Start today by scheduling a counseling appointment, going for a walk, or catching up with an old friend.