For Some, Depression Returns as Seasons Change

By Charnicia E. Huggins  12-2004

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Cold weather enthusiasts may eagerly await the snowy days of winter, but for those with seasonal affective disorder, the change from sunny to gloomy days often brings on a similar change in mood.

Possibly as many as one in five Americans suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or the winter blues, a condition that is linked to the decreased daylight hours and longer periods of darkness during the fall and winter months.

These people "are vulnerable to changes in, basically, light that occurs during the winter months," Dr. Douglas Jacobs, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School (news - web sites) in Boston, Massachusetts told Reuters Health.

The exact cause of the disorder is unknown, but it is thought to have something to do with a biochemical imbalance of the hormones melatonin and serotonin in the brains of susceptible people. Women are known to be more vulnerable to the disorder than men.

Symptoms of SAD include excessive sleeping, overeating, and a lack of interest in social interactions as well as sadness or other depressive feelings combined with irritability -- all of which go into remission with the return of longer daylight hours.

Generally, such symptoms are less severe than those experienced by people with clinical depression, said Jacobs, who is also the executive director of the nonprofit organization Screening for Mental Health. Still, if those symptoms begin to impair daily functioning, "consult a physician," Jacobs said.

People who are severely impacted by SAD may, in some cases, also develop suicidal feelings. In those instances, Jacobs said it is "mandatory" that they seek professional help.

"Anybody who experiences suicidal thoughts, without exception, should be evaluated by a mental health professional," Jacobs said, adding that family members and friends of affected individuals should see to it that their loved one receives treatment. No one should assume that those feelings would automatically subside or disappear when the season changes, he added.

Treatment for seasonal affective disorder can be as simple as taking a long walk outside during daylight hours, or otherwise increasing one's exposure to the sun. More severe cases of SAD may require several hours of daily light therapy, psychotherapy or antidepressants.

To locate a free, anonymous screening site for depression, visit or contact the American Psychiatric Association at for more information about seasonal affective disorder and other psychiatric disorders, or to locate a local psychiatrist.