Updated: Dec 15, 2021
Seasonal Affective Disorder (better known as SAD) is depression that occurs to a person during a specific time of the year. Most frequently, it occurs during the fall and winter months because it gets darker outside earlier and the days are shorter.
SAD is brought about by a chemical response to shorter days. Shorter daylight affects melatonin and serotonin, which helps regulates a person’s sleep-wake cycle, energy, and mood. As you see in the figure below, melatonin is linked to sleep. The brain will create more melatonin chemicals when it is dark. Higher melatonin levels can cause an individual to feel sleepy and less energetic. On the other hand, serotonin is linked to energy and moods. The brain will create more serotonin when a person is exposed to sunlight. Low levels of serotonin can lead to depression, whereas high levels of serotonin can elevate feelings of happiness and well-being. All in all, shorter days and less sunlight can cause high levels of melatonin and low levels of serotonin, which can lead to SAD.
In regard to SAD with teenagers and adolescents, oftentimes, the signs of mental health concerns or issues may be overlooked. Youth may describe and communicate more physical aches and pain than emotional distress or difficulties and these concerns may be overlooked as growing pains. Listed below are some symptoms and signs that an individual may express when experiencing SAD. These symptoms and signs may be tied to other health concerns, however, if these symptoms or signs are persistent over a course of two to three weeks, that is a definite sign to take notice and intervene.
As with other kinds of depression, an individual with SAD may experience these signs and symptoms.
Changes in Mood: People with SAD experience emotions such as feeling hopeless, irritable, discouraged, or worthless.
Negative Thinking: A teenager can become more self-critical or more sensitive to criticism. They may complain, blame, or see problems more than usual.
Lack of Enjoyment: Adolescents with SAD may lose interest in things they normally like to do, such as hanging out with friends, participating in school activities, etc.
Low Energy: Individuals with SAD may feel tired, or lack of motivation to do things they enjoy.
Trouble Concentrating: Like any type of depression, SAD can make it challenging to focus, which affects schoolwork and grades for teenagers.
Well, how can I treat SAD? Great question. Here are a few ways individuals treat SAD.
More Light Exposure
o Spending time outside during daylight is enough to relieve some seasonal depression. Doing activities such as exercising outside or taking a daily walk can boost serotonin levels.
o Talking to a therapist helps relieve negative thinking and feelings associated with depression. Also, it can help ease the isolation or loneliness that people with depression often feel.
o Doctors may prescribe medication for some individuals that help balance serotonin and other chemicals that affect mood and energy.
Find mental health/counseling resources for teens and young adults at https://www.teenconnecttampabay.org/counseling-mental-health
For additional mental health tips, visit www.teenconnecttampabay.org/mental-health
Also check out the Headspace app that can help establish and create life-changing habits to better support your mental health. The app is now free for youth 13-18!
Alexandra Dent, BSPH, Teen Connect Youth Advisory Board Intern
Lindsay Everest, Youth in Transition Care Coordinator, Crisis Center of Tampa Bay