When it’s more than the winter blues


The transition of summer to fall and winter is always tough, but what if you can’t shake feeling sad?

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Have you ever noticed how a bright, sunny day can make you feel so happy? Or how grumpy you are on a dark, rainy afternoon? It’s not uncommon for the weather to influence your mood, but when a drastic change in mood happens as soon as the days get shorter and the thermometer drops, it can be a type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). 

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, two to three percent of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime, fifteen per cent of Canadians will experience mild symptoms, and SAD makes up approximately ten per cent of all depression cases.

Typically experienced in the fall and winter months, SAD symptoms include a persistent sadness that lasts for more than two weeks and impairs a person’s ability to effectively maintain work or school activities, and social relationships. Other signs to look out for are weight fluctuations, difficulty sleeping, withdrawal from relationships, fatigue, irritability, and anger. More serious symptoms may include thoughts of suicide, hallucinations, and deliusions.

Causes & Risk Factors

While there is no definitive answer as to what causes SAD, researchers believe the change in sunlight creates a disruption to a person’s biological clock which controls their sleep patterns, and rattles the neurotransmitter functions that control serotonin and dopamine.

“More women than men and younger people are diagnosed. This has implications for college students who may be experiencing these symptoms for the first time, and may attribute the symptoms to other causes such as working too much on school work, partying too hard, or not used to being away from home,” said Sarah Burtenshaw, a Mental Health Worker with the Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Team at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton.

Where you live can also have an influence on Seasonal Affective Disorder. “There is a higher level of SAD in countries in hemispheres where there is a significant decrease in light,” according to Burtenshaw.

However, treatment options are available

“SAD used to be diagnosed by being placed in front of a therapy light for 30 minutes a day for two weeks. If your depression improved, then you knew it was SAD. Treatment today typically includes phototherapy, medication, and counselling,” said Burtenshaw. She adds “Education is important to ensure individuals are aware of the symptoms, the treatment options available, and to ensure the person is safe and not experiencing any suicidal symptoms and if they do, how to manage that situation.”

SAD & Covid-19

“I don’t know if Covid-19 is directly going to see an increase in SAD cases, but indirectly, it will,” said Burtenshaw. “People with depression often benefit from exercise and social contact, and Covid-19 has socially isolated individuals which worsens depression. Furthermore, people have benefitted from naturopathy, but there is limited access during Covid-19. Also, people who may experience depression may be blaming the pandemic for their symptoms as opposed to the true reason, SAD.”

Students may feel a little more SAD

With most schools cancelling events and social activities on campus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, students may notice they are feeling more down. Burtenshaw highlights the importance of seeking help. “Resources for students include the Student Health services that are available through the college, and COAST Halton is a crisis line that provides support to individuals 24/7. People are encouraged to see their family physician to monitor any depressive symptoms, and encourage individuals who are struggling with their mood to see a counsellor through the college.”