Students face a tough hurdle during the winter: Seasonal affective disorder

Short days and long nights can trigger winter depression, from which 5% of adults in the United States can suffer.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Grey skies loom over the Salt Lake Community College campus on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. Seasonal affective disorder affects many students, particular in the late winter months of February and March.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

As the weather fluctuates between warm and cold heading into spring, many college students attending class in January, February and March — Utah’s coldest, darkest and cloudiest months — are faced with the obstacle of seasonal affective disorder.

The disorder is a form of depression that returns annually as the seasons change to fall and winter, when days get shorter and darker. The condition begins to fade, as spring and summer return with longer days and more sunlight, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Symptoms often align with the common symptoms of clinical depression: Lack of energy, little interest in doing things, sleep irregularity, trouble concentrating and feelings of hopelessness. A study published in the medical news journal Medscape found that 5% of U.S. adults suffer from the disorder every year.

Such a depression can be “disruptive” to a student’s daily routine and academic progress, according to Salt Lake Community College counselor Scott Kadera.

“When we diagnose [any form of] depression or anxiety, part of that diagnosis is that it is negatively impacting social or occupational functions — like school or work — so if someone is having serious symptoms, it’s going to affect your ability to study, to go to class,” Kadera said. “It’s not that ‘you’re feeling bad.’ It’s that you’re not functioning how you normally would.”

Kadera said the disorder is predominantly linked with the lack of sunlight throughout the darker and colder months. According to Weather Spark, an online weather database, Utah’s cloudiest month on average is February, when the sky is overcast or cloudy 52% of the days, followed by the month of March, when it is cloudy about 51% of the days.

The average temperature rises from 37.8 degrees Fahrenheit in February to 46.6 degrees in March, according to a monthly climate breakdown of Salt Lake City on weather.us. March, which brings the first month of the spring, tends to remain chilly in Salt Lake City, with an average temperature ranging between 32.5 and 46.6 degrees.

Megan Malovich, an anthropology major at Salt Lake Community College, said these cold and cloudy months can make it a challenge to get into a routine until much later in the semester.

“I find getting up in the middle of a cold, depressing day with no plants, no sun and warmth very unmotivating to go to school and do what I need to do,” she said.

Malovich said the overcast weather, dry air and freezing temperatures make the spring semester more challenging than fall. She said she feels sluggish and less interested in school work than she does in warmer months.

“If you don’t have any motivation to get up and do anything at all,” she said. “The last thing you want to do is sit down and do math homework or write a paper.”

Kadera noted that the absence of regular sensory triggers can also cause seasonal depression.

“It’s cold, it’s dark, people are inside so it’s quiet, there are no flowers in bloom, there are not a lot of smells,” he said. “It’s sensory deprivation to me.”

Since seasonal affective disorder comes with the changing weather each year, Kadera said students can help notice the recurring symptoms of depression by being aware of their emotional wellbeing throughout the year.

Kadera encourages students to remember the feelings that come with the disorder are common and advises they check in with themselves by asking, “Am I feeling like my normal self, or am I feeling a little down or tired?”

“Then, you can go get it checked out by a professional, and if it is determined to be [seasonal affective disorder], there are treatments that can help,” he said.

Kadera said the main form of treatment is light therapy — exposing oneself to artificial light by sitting or working near a device that “gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light.”

The intensity of sunlight is measured in lux, and people need at least 30 minutes of 10,000 lux (the measurement of mid-day summer sun) daily to help treat depressive effects from the disorder, Kadera said.

“The treatment is to sit in front of [the light box] in the morning for a half hour, seven days a week, and it has been shown to help,” he said. “Improvement can happen within a week, but the full effect can take three-to-six weeks.”

Kadera also suggested taking advantage of the winter’s sunnier hours by getting outside during the day. While he was living in Alaska — a state with extensive periods of darkness with few hours of daylight — Kadera said he and his coworkers combatted seasonal affective disorder by using their lunch hour to get outside.

“The sun wouldn’t come up until 10 or 10:30 a.m. and then by 2 p.m., it was dark again, so we had a three- to three-and-a-half [hour] window of light,” he recalled. “We would all go walk around campus for a half hour.”

For those struggling with their academics due to the disorder, Kadera suggests visiting a counselor to try to get back on track. He noted that often, if students are unmotivated, it will be harder to concentrate and more likely they will miss class, and that studying does not sink in because their thinking has been compromised.

“With counseling, that [motivation] improves,” Kadera said. “It’s more like, ‘I’ve got a bit more energy, and I’m able to go to class and pay attention,’ and things start to sink in.”

Alexie Zollinger wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.