Winter: Whether you love it or hate it, there’s no denying that the months of December through February can be dark, cold, and, depending on the climate, isolating. Some children, teens, and adults notice that they have symptoms of depression during these cold months that they don’t have at other times of the year. This is a condition called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Seasonal affective disorder can affect just about anyone. Read on to find out if it’s impacting your teen’s life.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Many of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are the same as those of depression. They can include fatigue, feeling hopeless or worthless, difficulty concentrating and weight loss or gain. The factor that makes SAD different from other types of depression is that it occurs only during certain seasons. Most of the time, it’s in the fall and winter, when light levels are low. In some cases, however, people experience SAD in the spring and summer. Symptoms can be mild or severe. Some teens will try to self-medicate with alcohol or other substances, so this is something to watch for. If your teen is exhibiting severe symptoms, get help; in some cases, teens might even become suicidal.
Symptoms for Different Seasons
Depending on the seasons that negatively affect your teen, he or she might have some specific season-based symptoms.
For those who feel depressed during the fall and winter, symptoms can include having low energy, feeling that the arms and legs are heavy or “leaden,” sleeping too much, craving carbohydrates, and weight gain. You might notice that your teen’s grades are good during the first term of school, then low during the late fall and winter, then they come up again toward the end of the year.
Those who are experiencing SAD in the warmer months might experience heightened irritability, insomnia, anxiety, weight loss, and a poor appetite. Your teen might consistently do well in school until spring, then his or her grades plummet for the last term of the year. You might attribute it to “spring fever,” when in fact it’s SAD.
The symptoms will typically go away when the weather and light levels change, so you might think it was just a stage of adolescence, only to have the condition return next year.
Risk Factors for SAD
Some teens might be more susceptible to developing seasonal affective disorder than others. If you or someone else in your family has SAD or depression, this can make your teen more likely to develop it. Also, female are impacted more often than males. If your child already has depression or bipolar disorder, symptoms might get worse at certain times of the year. Finally, if you live in the northern United States, further away from the equator than those in southern states, your teen is more likely to develop wintertime SAD. One reason is because there are fewer hours of light the more north you live during the cold months. Other reasons for wintertime depression have more to do with circumstances common this time of year.
Of course, anyone can develop SAD, even if you live in Southern California, Texas or Florida and even if you don’t have anyone in your family with a history of depression.
Treatment for SAD
There are several different types of treatment for those with SAD. The traditional approach is to combine medication and psychotherapy, just like the treatment for other depressive illnesses. In teens, sometimes antidepressants are not used because their risks might outweigh the benefits. This is something to talk to your child’s mental health professional about. If it turns out that the benefits outweigh the risks, the doctor might suggest that your teen start taking medication in the weeks prior to the season that typically affects them to ward off symptoms before they begin.
Light therapy is another popular approach to treating wintertime seasonal affective disorder, and since it involves no drugs, it’s often the first line of defense for teenagers. Because it’s difficult to get enough natural light during the fall and winter, the doctor can recommend a light box, which mimics sunlight. Using this device for a prescribed period of time each day can be an effective treatment for SAD.
Finally, some lifestyle changes can help people affected by SAD, particularly if they’re combined with other treatments. Encourage your teen to spend some time outdoors each day, even if it’s cold and overcast. Also, exercise can boost endorphin levels, so if your teen isn’t playing a sport or taking PE, find some way for him or her to get in 30 minutes of exercise per day, if possible. Going for a walk can accomplish both of these changes. As always, getting enough sleep and eating well is important, too.
Supporting Your Teen
The best thing you, as a parent, can do when your teen has SAD is to get him or the help needed and encourage your teen to comply with medications, light box recommendations, counseling appointments, and lifestyle changes. Encourage your child to attend a support group, if recommended. You can also look for a support group for yourself, because being the support system for a teenager with depression can be overwhelming. Ask your child’s doctor or counselor for the name of a group or therapist who can help you, too, if needed.
Teens struggling with SAD can sometimes seem like they’re lazy, unmotivated, or moody for no reason. Keep the lines of communication with your teen open and talk about how they’re feeling. Be aware that your teenager might not realize that it’s the seasons that are affecting him or her, so if your teen seems to be depressed, think about when it started and whether it seems to be coming in a cyclical pattern. Ask your teen to keep a journal of his or her symptoms to show the doctor, because this can help with a diagnosis. It can also help give your teen some perspective. The good news is that when it comes to SAD, brighter days are ahead, literally, and you can assure your teen that he or she will be feeling better. The key is preventing the bad days, learning to cope with them as they come up, and looking forward to the happier seasons.