When winter brings more than the blues
February 22, 2018
Shirley Davis, a 57-year-old freelance writer and student at Eastern Illinois University, dreads the winter. She first started feeling this way since her 20s.
Davis lives with seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that typically emerges in late fall and subsides in the spring.
Every year, when Illinois veers toward long and cold winters, Davis feels herself slipping into a familiar depression.
“I noticed in the fall that my mood would change,” Davis said. “You dread getting out of bed. You have to push yourself through the day. You have to drag yourself through the day.”
Beginning in October, Davis slides into feelings of moroseness, apathy and hopelessness — symptoms typical of SAD — that drain her self-described energetic personality.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, though the causes of SAD remain unclear, younger adults, women, people living in places with longer winters and those with a genetic predisposition to mental illness are at the biggest risk of developing SAD.
Robert Parker, director of McKinley Health Center, said McKinley may see a spike in mental health visits during the winter.
Though treatments for SAD can range from medication to psychotherapy, Parker said a well-balanced lifestyle can play a crucial role in alleviating SAD.
“I can’t say it can be prevented, but it can be mitigated,” Parker said. “The campus experience tends to pull you in two directions, one being social and one being academic. A lot of it falls on the shoulders of the student to modify their work hard, play hard mindset.”
Balancing academic, social and physical needs can be the most important way students can fight depression, Parker said.
While academic demands can engulf huge chunks of students’ time, Parker recommends ensuring nonclassroom time is spent caring for physical and nutritional needs.
Pointing to research that suggests SAD may be related to a lack of sunlight, Parker also said students should spend time outside to reduce the effects of SAD that can overwhelm them at the height of the winter.
Although research pointing to a vitamin D deficiency as a cause of depression is inconclusive, Parker said McKinley staff look for it in those with SAD. They prescribe vitamin D supplements and encourage students to increase time spent in the sunlight.
Davis was diagnosed with SAD in 2009 after living with untreated depression for more than 30 years. She takes a 37.5-milligram dose of Effexor, an antidepressant drug, stays busy and spends at least 15 minutes outside every day to mitigate the effects of the disorder.
With temperatures rising and winter coming to an end, Davis is starting to bounce back. But even with spring and summer in sight, the anticipation of colder days to come will continue to haunt her.
“When you feel that nice warm weather and you know that cold weather is coming, you dread it,” Davis said. “I dread it.”