Seasonal affective disorder (sometimes abbreviated as SAD) is a type of depression that only shows up during certain seasons of the year. For most people with SAD, the depression begins in the fall and ends at the beginning of spring.
For a few, SAD appears during the warmer months. If your teen seems to fall into a depression during the winter and is feeling better by spring, he or she might be suffering from seasonal affective disorder. Read on to find out how it differs from traditional depression, how you can detect it, and how your teen can start feeling better.
How Does Seasonal Affective Disorder Differ From Depression?
The main difference between seasonal affective disorder and regular clinical depression is that the former occurs based on the seasons and the latter can appear at any time without rhyme or reason. The lack of light during the winter months is thought to be part of the connection. Many people leave their homes for school or work in the dark and then arrive home in the dark.
They don’t get much sunlight, particularly if they spend the day in an office or in a classroom without a lot of windows. This can cause the symptoms of major depression. Fortunately, the symptoms begin to lift as the days begin getting longer in the early spring.
Some other people begin noticing the symptoms each spring, once the days begin lengthening. This is relatively rare, occurring in only about 10 percent of people who have SAD.
- One possibility is that the depression is related to pollen; there is some evidence that those with bipolar disorder can become more depressed during “allergy season.”
- Another is that some people simply do not respond well to the changes in light that accompany the spring.
Regardless of the reason, if you notice that your teen is becoming depressed during March and April and it’s clearing up by mid-summer, they might have a type of SAD sometimes referred to as “reverse seasonal affective disorder.”
What Are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The symptoms of SAD are typically the same as the symptoms of any other type of major depression. Your teen might feel sad, worthless, or hopeless much of the time. While it’s normal to feel this way occasionally, if the feelings persist or are severe enough that your teen can’t function, it’s more than just “wintertime blues.”
Other symptoms include:
- Feeling anxious
- Decreased energy
- A loss of interest in activities that they used to enjoy
- Trouble sleeping – either insomnia or too much sleep
- Changes in appetite – either eating too much or too little
- Muscle aches
What Are Some of the Dangers of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
In severe cases, someone who is suffering from SAD might become suicidal. They might be afraid that they’ll feel this way forever and they see no other way out. They just want the pain to end. If you suspect that your teen is dealing with SAD or any other type of depression, it’s important that you make yourself aware of the signs that they might be suicidal. These include:
- Talking about wanting to die
- Making a plan to commit suicide
- Excessively isolating themselves
- Making references to “when I’m gone”
- Giving away treasured items
- Trying to put things in order by writing a will or calling estranged relatives to say goodbye
Another danger of seasonal affective disorder is that your teen might try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. This can lead to risky behavior, a serious accident, legal difficulties, or even an addiction. Your teen might think that by drowning his or her sorrows with substances, they’ll feel better; in reality, this will make things much worse.
What Are Some Lifestyle Changes That Can Help?
As with any type of depression, a medical doctor or mental health specialist should advise you and your teen based on his or her specific symptoms and the severity of the condition. With that being said, there are some lifestyle changes that might help if the depression is mild and while you are also seeking a professional’s care. These include:
- Getting more exercise
- Getting enough sleep
- And spending some time outdoors each day whenever possible
It’s okay if the sky is overcast or if it’s cold; there will still be some sunlight that can help brighten your teen’s mood. In addition, have him or her tested for a vitamin D deficiency; there is some evidence that low levels of vitamin D, which is synthesized by the body in response to sunlight on the skin, could be related to depression.
What Are Some Other Treatments That Can Help?
In addition to lifestyle changes, there are some treatments that can help a teen with seasonal affective disorder. These include:
- Antidepressants – A doctor might recommend antidepressants. It’s important to talk to the mental health practitioner about the benefits and risks of using this type of medication in teenagers.
- Light therapy – Light therapy might be warranted; this is when a special light is used to simulate the sun.
- Psychotherapy – Psychotherapy or other types of counseling can also help your teen learn to cope with the condition.
Is SAD Related to Other Mental Health Issues?
If left unchecked SAD can lead to full-blown depression, anxiety, and other types of mental health issues. Your teen might find him- or herself getting anxious as the days begin to shorten in the fall because they anticipate the depression that might follow. Bipolar disorder can also be impacted by the change of seasons, so it’s important to have that under control.
There’s no reason for your teen to suffer from seasonal affective disorder or to try to wait out the symptoms. Visit his or her pediatrician and ask for a referral to a mental health specialist, who will be able to treat your teen’s condition. Once you are aware of the problem, your teen can start treating it early each season to avoid the risks, complications, and bad feelings that accompany seasonal affective disorder.
Common Questions About SAD
1. What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is a type of depression and mood disorder that only occurs during specific seasons of the year – this could be during the winter season, or the summer season. It occurs at the same time every year.
2. What Causes SAD?
SAD is caused by the changing of seasons. Most conditions begin in the winter months, when the lack of sunlight occurs. Others suffer during the spring, although it is less common.
3. Can Seasonal Affective Disorder be Treated?
Lifestyle changes can help to reduce depression felt. This can include: getting more exercise and enough sleep, and spending time outdoors whenever possible. Antidepressants, light therapy, and psychotherapy can also help. Your depression treatment center will create an individualized plan based on symptoms and severity of the condition.