October 23, 2013

Gannett: One in Four Students Face ‘Winter Blues’

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Ithaca may be “gorges,” but it does have its share of dreary days. The approaching winter can cause as many as one in four college students to experience seasonal affective disorder, commonly known as the winter blues, according to Gannett officials.

SAD is defined as “a mild depression brought on by a decrease in exposure to sunlight as autumn deepens,” according to Gannett Health Services’ website. People suffering from this mood disorder experience depressive symptoms, including increased lethargy, difficulty waking up in the morning and concentrating on tasks and increased craving for carbohydrate-rich food, according to the website.

Gannett estimates that “nearly 25 percent of all college students across the United States suffer from the winter blues, and this percentage increases at higher latitudes or more cloudy areas, such as the Ithaca region,” according to its website.

Cornellians experiencing SAD display a wide range in the severity of their symptoms, according to Gregory Eells, director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Gannett.

“In terms of people experiencing mood fluctuations, there’s a full continuum,” Eells said. “I think it can go from more like winter blues to more serious emotional mood consequences that are very similar to depression.”

SAD may be caused by unstable levels of melatonin, a hormone produced during sleep, and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of happiness, Eells said. According to Eells, determining who is most at risk is “difficult.” SAD affects more women that it does men, and generally students from places with sunnier climates are more susceptible to the winter blues. In addition, students who oversleep or have abnormal sleeping schedules may suffer from SAD because they are less exposed to morning sunlight and produce more melatonin, Eells said.

Gannett offers counseling for seasonal related disorders and assessments to ensure students or faculty members are not experiencing underlying, more complex mental health concerns. Additionally, Gannett’s pharmacy sells light boxes –– small lamps that emit high intensities of light –– which produce effects similar to sunshine. Light boxes can improve a person’s mood by restricting the secretion of melatonin, according to Gannett’s website.

“[Light boxes are a] relatively inexpensive, drug-free approach with few if any side effects when used correctly,” said Sharon Dittman, associate director of community relations at Gannett. “Many people report high satisfaction with this therapy.”

Gannett’s pharmacy has a specific brand of light boxes called Litebook Elites and sells about 125 to 150 Litebooks a year, according to Dittman. The Litebooks are sold for $200, and the Student Health Insurance Plan pays 100 percent of the cost for students with a prescription, Dittman said, adding that most health insurance plans will also cover the cost given a prescription and a letter of medical necessity.

The Litebooks are sold in boxes featuring a picture of former Prof. James Maas, psychology, who is on the scientific advisory board for the company that sells the product. Maas is noted for coining the term “power nap” and for researching the relationship between sleep and performance.

“What we needed for years was something very portable, very bright,” Mass said in a quote featured on the Litebook box. “The Litebook Elite has answered that need beautifully.”

Exercising in the morning, getting more exposure to outside light, and eating more complex carbohydrates are other strategies to combat SAD, according to Eells.

For people who suffer from more severe depressive symptoms or for whom the light box is not effective, Gannett also offers medication and therapy.

“The main thing is just attending to it. I think one of the hardest parts is the stigma. There’s research on stigma and what others think of someone with a psychological illness,” Eells said. “But sometimes the thing that gets most in the way of getting help is what you would think of yourself –– that you would think less of yourself because you can’t just handle it. If you experience SAD, you should seek help.”