April 5, 2011

Letter to the Editor: Informed dialogue on seasonal disorders

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To the Editor:

Re: “SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder,” Opinion, March 30

In their recent piece on seasonal mood variation at Cornell, the authors present a confusing and evidently uninformed picture of Seasonal Affective Disorder. At times, they are as glib in their discussion on SAD as they are flippant in offering viable strategies to improve mood in the student population.

To be clear, SAD is a clinical subtype of mood disorder that consists of recurrent episodes of major depression occurring with a seasonal pattern. It can take place in either summer or winter and is far from “mild,” as the authors incorrectly state. In fact, to diagnose SAD, one must experience significant occupational and social impairment in addition to symptoms such as depressed mood, lack of energy, increased sleep, increased appetite (notably carbohydrate craving) and weight gain. Treatment includes light therapy and/or antidepressant medication, both of which are equally effective.

There is a broad spectrum of seasonal mood variation, of course. In addition to SAD, mental health professionals recognize a milder but more common variant, subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder (S-SAD). Specifically, a study in 2000 found that five percent of college students met criteria for SAD and another 16 percent for S-SAD. Despite these findings, the majority of students likely experience more fleeting fluctuations in mood, ones that do not qualify them for any specific psychiatric diagnosis.

Although not indicated for medical management, non-diagnosable depressed mood does warrant our attention. Unlike the authors though, I am not confident that additional Slope Days, extended snow days and sanctioned snowball fights are useful tools to combat even the most benign alteration in mood. In contrast, I believe that recent initiatives such as discouraging homework assignments over spring break represent a more insightful — and possibly effective — means by which to implement meaningful change.

As a former Cornell undergraduate, I appreciate the authors’ attempt to establish a sense of camaraderie that mutual commiseration can frequently provide. Nonetheless, a sincere discussion of bona fide mental health disorders demands our sensitivity and requires intelligent, well-informed dialogue. Our fellow students deserve that.

David Roy ’08

Third-year M.D. Candidate at Weill Cornell Medical College