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The reason why you’re SAD: seasonal affective disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder impacts 5 percent of the U.S. population, but there are treatments available. | Fiona Legesse-Sinha/The Cougar

From James Blake playfully opting to claim the title SAD boy instead of sad boy to Ilana Wexler using light therapy to combat her depression in “Broad City,” seasonal affective disorder, otherwise known as SAD or seasonal depression, has been the talk of the town recently — and rightfully so.

Every year, approximately five percent of the U.S. population is affected by SAD. Women and people with previous mental health problems are particularly vulnerable. The destigmatization of mental health has been a long time coming. Inoffensive jokes about a disorder that affects this many people seems like an obvious step in the right direction.

Though the open and lighthearted discussion of seasonal depression is new, the disorder itself certainly isn’t. It’s human nature to crave humor to relieve the tension of breaching uncomfortable subjects.

Comedy has always been the Wild West in terms of discussing the new and taboo, whether it’s coming from the mouth of a beloved comedian or the Twitter page of a depressed rando. Mental illness is simply the newest sheriff in town. It’d be disingenuous to say these jokes pose no social good, but if jokes are all we’re getting, we’re not getting the full story.

SAD is categorized as a type of depression with a consistent seasonal pattern. In most, the depressive episodes occur throughout late fall and winter, with symptoms alleviating during the spring and summer months. Though we have a tendency to think of SAD as “depression-lite” since it only arises 40 percent of the yearthat is not the case.

The symptoms of seasonal depression are almost identical to those of major depression, and the fact that they’re gone by the time spring rolls around doesn’t make them any less severe. Common symptoms include low energy, insomnia or excessive sleep, feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest and suicidal thoughts.

The direct cause, beyond the simple explanation of your brain chemistry attempting to sabotage your holiday plans, is unknown. This makes treatment complicated, but we are aware that the reduction of sunlight during the winter exacerbates symptoms.

Less sunlight equals less serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates your mood, and less melatonin, the hormone that sends you those “go to bed” signals you ignore. The result is a sleepier, sadder you – just in time for all of the stress that accompanies the start of the new year and spring semester. Yay!

Though it’s always best to see a professional and get officially diagnosed if you have the resources to do so, it doesn’t always take a medical professional to know something is not right with your mental health. However, that still leaves the question: Once you know or suspect you have seasonal affective disorder, where do you go from there?

Seeing as we’re unable to control the seasons (at least for now – NASA, if you’re working on something to fix this, please let me know), all SAD treatments must be based on changing your own individual surroundings, thoughts and/or patterns of behavior.

Fortify your support system

Though depression, seasonal or not, may make the simple act of leaving the house feel daunting, a helping hand will always remind you that it doesn’t have to be. Whether it be a friend, family member or just that nice girl you sit next to in class who sends you her notes when you’re not feeling up to the task, reaching out to someone can dramatically alleviate depression.

Light therapy

Make like Ilana in that aforementioned “Broad City” sketch and invest in a SAD lamp – that is, a lamp that mimics natural sunlight to trigger those regulatory brain chemicals you’re missing out on. Though they have mixed reviews and vary in quality, many suffering from SAD have found these lamps extremely helpful.

Set up a stable routine

This has absolutely been the most helpful for me in my regular, plain ol’ depression. Sometimes, forcing yourself out of bed and right to class or the gym for those sweet, sweet endorphins at the same time every day is the best thing you can do for yourself. Plus, a regular schedule radically improves poor sleep habits, making it more difficult for you to sleep all day or stay up all night.

Don’t be afraid to seek professional help

UH’s very own Counseling and Psychological Services exists for this very reason. Initial appointments, referrals and all group sessions are absolutely free to current students. The brain is the most complex organ in the body, and maintaining its health should be as shame-free as getting your teeth cleaned. It’s never too late to reach out and ask for help, and there is an abundance of resources at your disposal.

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