Seasonal Depression

The sunlight is still creeping through the trees, so it is hard to believe that it is already seven o’clock at night. A big contrast to the five o’clock winter sunset, that would steal away the sun before you got a chance to step outside. Feeling suddenly better from the warm weather and long-lasting sunlight is no coincidence. 

Due to the dreary weather of New England, and short winter days, the cold months of the school year can cause many people to fall into a state of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), more commonly known as seasonal depression. This can cause students to struggle in school, with both their grades and social lives. 

SAD is a type of depression that follows the pattern of seasons. For example, a person who suffers from SAD could either see a decrease in mental well-being in the fall and winter months, while feeling better in the spring and summer months, or vice versa. This pattern will occur at the same time every year. 

The symptoms that come along with SAD are usually similar to those that come from general depression. This can include, but is not limited to, feeling sad or down daily, losing interest in activities, sleeping too much (or too little), and difficulty concentrating, according to the Mayo Clinic. 

Although researchers have not come up with a conclusive cause for SAD, there are some points that could lead to it. Researchers found that this disorder is more common among women, those who already struggle with mental health, and those who live further north according to the National Institute of Mental Health. 

Kim Cassamas, a counselor at Oyster River High School (ORHS), sees a decrease in mental health during the winter months which can be interpreted as students struggling from SAD. She says this is pretty consistent every year. “We definitely have an increase of students that struggle just staying motivated and engaged during the end of winter each year,” she explained. Cassamas says that this is the time that she would call the peak of students struggling 

Sam*, a student, talked about their struggle with SAD at school, saying, “I feel more fatigued and overwhelmed in the winter.” Sam is a high performer in school and typically a very social person. “It kind of feels like every day is the same and it’s feeling a lot less exciting than when it’s nicer out.” 

Being a social person, their mood is usually affected by those around them. So, when many people are also suffering from SAD, they tend to feel even more down, “I feel like I’m personally very malleable to other people’s moods,” they said. 

Another student, Jessie*, talked about their struggle with socialization during the winter months, “I usually feel down and tired all the time. The thought of hanging out with people is so draining.” They feel that even in school they talk less in general. The lack of Vitamin D, combined with the dreary New England weather, they think, is a recipe for depressing feelings. 

Scientific proof backs up what Jessie is saying. A person’s brain who struggles with SAD has a change in serotonin and melatonin levels can cause SAD. The brain has reduced activity of serotonin which, research suggests, controls the levels of molecules that help maintain normal serotonin levels. The brain could also see an over-production of melatonin. When both levels are off, it affects the body’s daily rhythm which can make it harder on the body to adjust to seasonal changes (such as day length) according to the National Institute of Mental Health. 

As a counselor, Cassamas sees a lot more students than she normally does for mental health reasons, including students that normally do not struggle in this area, and mentions it is a time when a lot of students will hit walls (when a student feels like they can no longer progress). 

Hitting walls can greatly affect a student’s ability to perform in school. “Your overall being is not good. It’s really hard to perform at your capacity,” Cassamas says. Getting through the school day is so draining, by the time a student gets home there is not energy left to complete homework, and Cassamas thinks this is especially draining when students are focused on masking their struggling. “It might not be very visible here in the building for all students, but they’re feeling it at home when they see a change in their own patterns.” 

Trouble concentrating, low energy, and having an overall lower interest are all things that make performing at a high level in school incredibly challenging. Cassamas mentioned this when talking about a student’s ability to complete work, saying, “your capacity changes, especially when you’re internally struggling and that is not visibly seen. You have to mask it, and it takes a lot of energy to mask.” 

Sam talked about how they feel in school in the winter, saying, “I feel like I get more overwhelmed during this time in school, especially the long stretch after winter break until February break.” They typically use fun distractions to help with stressful feelings surrounding school, but in the winter, it is harder. “It feels like there’s not much to distract me from feeling overwhelmed so it makes it feel worse than it actually might be.” 

Jessie also has higher levels of stress during this time. They talked about how their grades always suffer at the end of second quarter and all of third quarter. “It is consistently when my grades are the lowest… it’s not that my test scores are lower but more that I have no motivation to get homework done and often get zeros in class for that.” 

However, it is important to keep in mind the other factors that go into skewing this data. As science teachers always say, “you can’t change more than one variable in an experiment.” This is essentially the same concept. During the winter months, students undergo the pressure of midterm exams, which can lead to emotions and symptoms similar to those of depression. Cassamas brought up that for upperclassmen who take a large number of semester long classes the switch is schedules can cause for a change in grades. 

“I think midterm exams, for me at least, really drain me. I spend a lot of time studying, and when it’s over I usually have less energy to put towards school,” said Jessie. This, on top of the symptoms of SAD, makes for a difficult few months in school. 

Some pieces of advice given by these students include taking a drive down the coast “even if it’s too cold to spend a lot of time [at the beach] just sitting in the car and looking at the water helps to make me feel better.” They say doing activities to clear their head usually helps with the overwhelming feelings. “It helps remind me that feelings of being overwhelmed are temporary and soon enough it’ll be summer again with way less stress.” 

Cassamas also gives advice on how to feel better. Some small things such as taking a vitamin D supplement can help improve your mood. She is a huge supporter of self-reflection anytime you are going through struggles and thinks that this is a crucial step to feeling better. “Reach out and connect with your resources, your trusted adults, your support team.” 

If you start to notice a pattern of depressive feelings around the same time every year Cassamas says you should start taking preventative measures beforehand. “Try to beat it and put a goal in place.” To do this, Cassamas suggests to “connect with your doctor to find out what the best path would be for a preventative measure for yourself heading into the following winter season.” 

The most important thing to remember for those who struggle with SAD is that you’re not alone and even though you may not see it, many people are also struggling during this time. Taking measures to ensure your mental health is well should be at the top of your priority list. Remember that there are many resources available to students in the counseling department. 

-Abby Deane