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Seasonal disorder affects students

Courtney Ball | Wednesday, November 8, 2006

The onset of winter means not only the end of football season and progressively colder temperatures, but also fewer hours of daylight – a change that leaves some students with more than just the wintertime blues.

The struggle to adjust to the waning daylight hours and colder weather causes some students to suffer from Major Depression Seasonal Pattern, commonly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), said Wendy Settle, staff psychologist with the University Counseling Center. SAD affects about 10 million Americans, she said, with an additional 24 million suffering from milder symptoms.

The darker evenings and increased pressure to stay indoors and study puts students at additional risk for depression.

“Symptoms include an increase in appetite, weight gain, fatigue, a tendency to oversleep, and difficulty getting out of bed in the morning,” Settle said. “It can be quite debilitating.”

Fortunately, Notre Dame students seem to have had few serious cases in the past, she said.

“We have seen very few students who have the full criteria for it,” Settle said. “A lot more students have a seasonal pattern to depression symptoms, also called the winter doldrums or winter blues.”

But this doesn’t mean Notre Dame students are not at risk for developing SAD. Contemporary Topics instructor Marisha Schmidt warns freshmen in her course about the risk factors for SAD.

“Individuals most susceptible are women between the ages of 20 and 40 whose families have a history of SAD,” Schmidt said.

Two-thirds of people who develop SAD have family members who suffer from depression and one-third have relatives afflicted with SAD, Settle said. But all students should be aware of the symptoms and risks, she said.

Cold winter weather and its location above the 32-degree latitude line make South Bend residents vulnerable to SAD, Settle said.

“If someone has a predisposition [for SAD], then with this climate they are more susceptible,” Settle said. “As people become more familiar with it, we see more students afflicted with it.”

Freshman Robin Link, who hails from Saint Petersburg, Fla., said the weather in her hometown rarely dips below 40 degrees. Heading into her first winter in South Bend, Link said she is worried about the colder weather on its way.

“I am used to having constant sunshine and I do not know how the lack of it will affect my mood,” she said.

Freshman Malisha Samarasekera, of Dublin, Ohio, said she has noticed a change in peoples’ dispositions as the days grow shorter.

“People have been a lot less upbeat since fall break,” Samarasekera said.

Fortunately, there is treatment available for those suffering from Major Depression Seasonal Pattern, Settle said.

“If a student sees a seasonal pattern to his moods, go to the University Counseling Center to get a full assessment and possible treatment,” Settle said.

The treatment for SAD may include cognitive therapy, bright light therapy and in some cases, antidepressant medication, she said.

Because lack of exposure to sunlight is thought to be a major component in the development of SAD, using a bright light box each morning for a half-hour to an hour has been shown to help alleviate symptoms, Settle said.

“The beneficial effects of bright light therapy can be seen in as little as two to four weeks,” Settle said.