by Morganne Grutsch
The holidays have ended, the cold and snow are near, the skies are grey and students are headed back to classes. The start of the Spring Term in Higher Education is a mixed bag of student energies - some are riding high on New Year’s resolutions of staying organized or maintaining that GPA, while others battle with motivation in fighting the Winter Blues.
Living in the Midwest, the winter season always brings a change in mood, the days are shorter, the nights are darker and cold seems to shoot right through you. And for many people, these typical Winter Blues symptoms are just the beginning of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). While symptoms mirror those of Depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder typically only persists through the winter months. Changs in appetite, under or oversleeping, difficultly concentrating and increased sadness or irritability are some of the warning signs that you or someone around you may be struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder . With studies showing 13.2% of college students suffering from SAD, the rates only increase the farther north you are. With the start of most spring semesters beginning in the peak of season of SAD symptoms, it is important for Higher Education professionals to understand how SAD affects student success and well being, and what methods of support they can provide.
While typical treatments of Depression are helpful, as we advise students struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder, studies show there are few methods we should focus our support in to maximize improvements. Because SAD symptoms increase with reduced exposure to daylight, vitamin D deficiencies, and changes in our circadian rhythms - encouraging students to build more consistent sleep and exercise routines, managing nutrition and increasing light exposure can greatly improve symptom.
According to the Sleep Foundation, lack of quality sleep can impact ability to focus, motivation and energy, and beginning to track sleep and creating better nighttime routines is a great first step in helping students manage their symptoms. Whether limiting nighttime eating, maintaining low light before bed, or minimizing screen time, helping students create a calming night time routine can greatly increase sleep quality. Along with sleep, nutrition plays a key role in reducing impacts of SAD. Not only does lack of sunshine and therefore vitamin D contribute to SAD symptoms, but often students are lacking key vitamins and minerals in their diets to help maintain energy and negatively impacts sleep quality. Encouraging students to talk with the doctors about adding a Vitamin D supplement, or even taking a brisk 15 minute walk across campus can have a hugely positive impact. As a Student Affairs professional, I recently had a student disclose they were struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder, and along with their prescribed treatments I encouraged them to continue spending time outside and moving their body. After a few weeks of building walks into their routine the student was excited to report back increased quality of sleep and other SAD symptoms.
Unfortunately, due to the unpredictability of midwest winters, or even unsafe weather conditions farther north, incorporating time outside is not always an option. In order to overcome this grey-skied-hurdle, Light Therapy has been introduced as an effective treatment to Seasonal Affective Disorder. A study completed at Berkeley, sought to find out just how affective the use of Light Therapy Boxes can be when treating college students struggling with SAD. The study successfully shown how light therapy can reduce depression and SAD symptoms, whether in a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy or light therapy alone. By utilizing a pre and post-test of self reported symptoms, there was a significant improvement in symptoms, as most participants were able to see changes from “severe” to “minimum” symptoms according to the Beck Depression Inventory after completing the rounds of light therapy.
As the research, and my own experience in working with students suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder describes, introducing sleep routines, nutrition management and light therapy can be a huge benefit the student body’s success and wellbeing. While a clear benefit to students, these services still come at a cost to the university, with the average light box priced around $250, the treatment holds a steep cost for students. Universities nationwide are seeing more than ever students are looking for mental health support on campus, and yet as House & Walton state “there has not been a parallel increase in funding for these services”. In order to maintain a holistic student focused mission, Higher Education administrations should be called to budget for these needed mental health services accordingly. Serving students has never stopped at enrollment, and supporting students through mental health challenges during the Winter Blues will be key to continued student success.
Better Sleep for a better you. Sleep Foundation. (2023, March 3). https://www.sleepfoundation.org/
House, L. A., & Walton, B. (2017). The effectiveness of light therapy for college student depression. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 32(1), 42–52. https://doi.org/10.1080/87568225.2017.1321975
Upson, M. (2023, March 8). Understanding seasonal affective disorder: Bestcolleges. BestColleges.com. https://www.bestcolleges.com/resources/seasonal-affective-disorder/
Verywell Mind. (2023, May 19). What is The Beck Depression Inventory?. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-beck-depression-inventory-5294126
During her undergraduate experience, Morganne developed a passion for Higher Education and serving students while pursuing a Bachelors of Science in Criminology & Criminal Justice and Bachelors of Arts in Sociology, magna cum laude from the University of Nebraska Omaha. After discovering writing as a way to challenge sociopolitical based policies with evidence based research through her undergraduate thesis: The Adverse Affects of Sexual Assaults on the College Experience, Morganne sought out more ways to show that students meet greater success when holistically cared for. After a history of working in various student facing positions, Morganne now serves as the Assistant Director of Operations for the Thompson Learning Community at the University of Nebraska Omaha seeking to help promote institutional change in the way students are supported. Morganne is on her way to completing her Masters of Science in Education: Higher Education & Student Affairs in May of 2024.
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