Seasonal Depression in America


Students hurry to class in the rain at Loyola University New Orleans. This time of year is especially gloomy for those who experience seasonal depression. Jan. 19, 2017. Photo credit: Haley Pegg

Haley Pegg

Many Americans struggle with mild depression, but for a handful of people like Sam Capaldo, depression comes and goes depending on one main factor: the weather.

“Some days I really don’t want to talk to anyone, I don’t want to get out of bed, I don’t want to do my homework,” Capaldo said. “It depends on if it’s sunny or cloudy.”

Capaldo, English writing senior, is one of millions of Americans dealing with seasonal depression. According to American Family Physician, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians, 4 to 6 percent of Americans have seasonal affective disorder. An additional 10 to 20 percent experience a mild form of SAD, which is what we call seasonal depression.

Most people with seasonal depression experience the onset of depression during fall and winter months due to cold and cloudy weather. Symptoms usually go away during spring and summer. These symptoms are similar to those of general depression, including insomnia, anxiety, loss of interest, mood swings, etc.

According to Kathryn Lawing, developmental psychologist, the cause of seasonal depression can be a combination of genetics, biology and environment.

Enrique Varela, Loyola psychology professor, offered insight into the role of science and biology in causing seasonal depression.

Varela identified melatonin as a hormone that plays a huge role in the body’s circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that tells the body when to sleep, along with regulating other physiological processes.

The cycle can be disrupted by different external factors, such as the amount of light to which someone is exposed. When there is less light than usual, melatonin is produced at a higher rate.

This change in hormone levels can cause people to sleep for longer periods of time, changes in body temperature and other depressive symptoms. Such changes can drastically affect a person’s mood, leading to depression.

Seasonal Affective Disorder from Loyno SMC on Vimeo.

Lawing works as a licensed psychologist in New Orleans. She specializes in helping patients with anxiety and mood disorders and works mostly with children, adolescents and young adults. She discussed different treatments for those suffering from seasonal depression, focusing particularly on light therapy.

“There’s a direct correlation between lack of sunlight and lower mood,” Lawing said. “That’s a fact.”

Light therapy involves a person exposing him or herself to light through use of a light box for a period of about 30 minutes each day, or sometimes as long as 90 minutes. This technique has been proven successful in helping improve mood.

Lawing also discussed the evidence-based treatment method of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy involves an individual working with a licensed professional to learn to identify negative thinking patterns. Once these negative thoughts have been identified, the individual then works to counteract them and change them into positive thinking patterns.

Lawing added that in addition to changing their negative thinking patterns, individuals should also change their behaviors.

“They can do anything like keeping their blinds and windows open so there’s more sunlight, changing the feng shui of their house or forcing themselves to go out and do more activities,” Lawing said.

Capaldo agreed with the treatment options recommended by Lawing and other psychologists. Originally from Connecticut, she said her depression always worsens when she goes home during winter break and improves when she returns to New Orleans where it is warmer. She said most importantly, therapy has helped her have a more positive outlook on life.

“Sometimes I just force myself to get out of bed. I remind myself that I have people who love me and support me, and I tell myself it’s going to be worth it,” Capaldo said.