Sometimes mistaken for the winter blues, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs during different times of the year, often associated with the changing of the seasons. Younger adults, specifically women, and individuals living farther from the equator are at a higher risk for developing SAD. Similar to depression, SAD shares many of the same symptoms, including sad or depressed mood, irritability, low energy, and feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt. However, SAD symptoms differ in that they include increased appetite, weight gain, and over-sleeping.1
Despite depression being more well-known, researchers have suggested SAD is more common among undergraduate populations.1 In one study, undergraduates with SAD scored high on cognitive failures (memory retrieval, perceptual discrimination, and attentional focus) similar to undergraduates with depression1, suggesting SAD can be as significant and debilitating as depression. It has been suggested that undergraduates may be experiencing higher rates of SAD during the winter months due to academic pressures of final exams and added stress from the holidays.2 However, research in an undergraduate population has shown that symptoms of SAD were highest and consistent through the months of December, January, and February, suggesting that SAD symptoms are not timed with exams and holidays.2
Common treatments for SAD include light therapy, medications, and therapy. Knowing the signs, symptoms, and being open to discussing of the impact seasonal affective disorder may have on undergraduates can serve to raise awareness and encourage students to reach out for additional support when needed.
1Sullivan, B. & Payne, T. W. (2007). Affective disorders and cognitive failures: A comparison of seasonal and nonseasonal depression. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164, 1663-1667.
2Rohan, S. T., & Sigmon, S. T. (2000). Seasonal mood patterns in a northeastern college sample. Journal of Affective Disorders, 59, 85-96.