The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Winter seeing SAD cases increase

By Brian Martucci

The mildest winter in recorded history couldn’t stop Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a common depressive syndrome, from affecting Macalester students.

The mild weather had little effect on the number of Mac students showing signs of depression this winter, Winton Health Services Associate Director Ted Rueff said. Students this year have been complaining of lackluster mood and energy levels at rates consistent with previous years, he said.

An exact comparison between this year and last year will not be available until the end of the semester. Studies have pinpointed inadequate exposure to sunlight as the primary cause of SAD, a generally mild syndrome that saps the energy of individuals of all ages during winter months.

According to the Northern County Psychiatric Associates of Baltimore, Maryland, the frequency of SAD cases increases markedly with latitude, suggesting that Macalester students may be particularly prone to the disorder when compared with their peers at, say, Pomona College in California.

National data suggests that about one in five college students in the northern tier of the country suffer from SAD.

Nevertheless, SAD does not seem to affect the choices prospective students make about Mac. Cold weather is more of a factor, Assistant Dean of Admissions Nancy Mackenzie said.

“Cold weather is a hurdle for some students, but for a few it’s actually appealing to have seasons and snow,” she said.

Business for Winton’s psychologists usually picks up during October and November because of deteriorating weather conditions and because that’s when academic stressors begin to kick in for students, Rueff said.

Students with definitive symptoms of SAD usually don’t start coming in until later in November and early December, however.

Major symptoms of the disorder include lethargy and longer sleep periods, increased appetite and weight gain, and depressed mood.

“These symptoms are common to some kinds of depression, but not all of them,” Rueff said. “Oftentimes it’s difficult to say if depression is attributable to light deficits.”

Extrapolating trends from the patterns of seasonal depression at Macalester is especially difficult because students aren’t here during the warmest, sunniest months of the year.

The body needs to take in a certain amount of natural light each day to function efficiently and to produce some essential nutrients. One of the first side effects of inadequate natural light intake is higher-than-usual levels of melatonin, a sleep hormone linked to lethargy, depression, and overeating.

Unlike victims of more serious, chronic forms of depression, SAD victims can self-medicate. According to Rueff, the best treatments for the disorder are a rigid seven- or eight-hour sleep cycle and cardiovascular exercise.

Phototherapy—through the use of sunlamps—can help pick up the slack under certain conditions if exercise and less sleep prove ineffective. These devices radiate bright light that includes virtually all visible wavelengths, closely mimicking the sun’s full-spectrum rays.

“The evidence would suggest that sunlamps do help improve mood, but most people don’t use them enough,” Rueff said.

A study on the National Mental Health Association’s website noted that “an hour’s walk in winter sunlight is as effective as two and a half hours of bright artificial light.”

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