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Happy Light benefits college during winter

Rebecca O'Neil | Monday, February 11, 2013

Saint Mary’s is offering a solution to its students’ weather-induced woes. The Happy Light, available in Women’s Health by appointment only, imitates sunlight with special fluorescent bulbs that are twenty-five times brighter than normal bulbs.

Students are welcomed and encouraged to take advantage of the pseudo-sunlight, director of Women’s Health Elizabeth Fourman said.

“The counselors had been reading about the benefits of the Happy Light for years, so we finally purchased our Happy Light in the fall of 2010,” she said. “It’s used to treat SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), which is prevalent in the northern U.S.”

Up to 25 percent of people in the northern U.S. have some symptoms of SAD, Fourman said, and the disorder is more prevalent in females, which made Saint Mary’s an ideal location for the light.

With lows in the 10s and highs in the 40s this winter season, Fourman said South Bend’s weather may be detrimental to academic success. For those afflicted with the disorder, the environmental inconsistencies are hazardous to both physical and emotional health.

Consistent exposure to sunlight or artificial light may mitigate the effects of the disorder. Fourman said those who have used the light usually notice a small improvement in mood and energy.

“There is a direct correlation to improved symptoms with regular use,” she said. “The symptoms of SAD also improve with regular exercise, good nutrition, hydration, counseling, regular sleep cycle and for some, medication.”

Saint Mary’s is not the only school to try this unconventional method, Fourman said.

“I don’t know of any locally, but some schools with multiple lights rent them for a week at a time, or have students check them out from the library, and some have students schedule appointments like we do here,” she said.

Ideally, the light should be used daily, Fourman said, but with students’ busy schedules, that often is not an option. Typical sessions run from 15 to 60 minutes, but most people use it for about half an hour.

“Students start making appointments for the Happy Light in November. The most we’ve had in one week is 11, but usually it’s less than that,” said Fourman.

Sophomore Logan Nevonen visited the light for the first time last year.

“I hadn’t heard of it before and I thought I would try it because I was not feeling like myself. I was pretty down,” said Nevonen.

The Texas native went to the Happy Light twice a week for about three weeks and did homework.

“Girls from warmer climates request the Happy Light more frequently,” Fourman said. “Our dreary weather can last for months, and a lot of us forget what the sun looks like until it comes back in the spring. Many students who come from a more sunny climate have a difficult time adjusting to our clouds.”

Unfortunately, the light’s effects do not work for everyone.

“I didn’t feel any different than I had before I tried it, so I decided not to go back. It didn’t work for me,” said Nevonen.