As winter arrives, Yale experts weigh in seasonal depression
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a subtype of depression that can affect people of all ages and backgrounds and is commonly experienced during the transition from autumn to winter.
Anna Chamberlin, Contributing Illustrator
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.
Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7 and confidential.
To talk with a counselor from Yale Mental Health and Counseling, schedule a session here. On-call counselors are available at any time: call (203) 432-0290.
Students who are interested in taking a medical withdrawal should reach out to their residential college dean.
Additional resources are available in a guide compiled by the Yale College Council here.
Experts’ concerns about seasonal affective disorder are on the rise as winter sets in.
Also known as seasonal depression, SAD is an oft-overlooked subtype of major depression that can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. Most commonly experienced as days see less and less sunlight, SAD can significantly affect everyday life. Symptoms can be hard to notice, making seeking treatment and recovering from the condition all the more difficult.
“Typically, in adults, the seasonal symptoms present like depression, especially in fall and winter seasons, and then in summer and spring, the symptoms tend to decrease,” assistant professor clinical child psychiatry Suman Baddam said. “There may be people who have major depressive disorder [already]…[and] the seasonality may lead to having more severe symptoms of depression within fall and winter, too.”
Signs and symptoms: weight gain, insomnia and hypersomnia
Those afflicted by SAD often experience many of the same symptoms as those with major depressive disorder. The seasonal pattern in which symptoms occur and their severity differentiates SAD from other types of depression.
According to Baddam, research has demonstrated that symptoms similar to those seen in eating disorders can also affect those with SAD.
“One of the symptoms that’s quite common in people with SAD that doesn’t become very obvious in people with regular depression is weight gain,” said Meir Kryger, professor emeritus of medicine at Yale School of Medicine. “A lot of people who have SAD will put on weight in the winter months.”
Another major symptom that students may experience with severe depression related to SAD is seen in sleep problems.
Students with severe depression can have difficulty falling and staying asleep, said Kryger, who wrote the book “The Mystery of Sleep.” At the same time, some students might also “ironically,” experience the opposite symptom of hypersomnia, which means they feel much sleepier than normal.
Risk factors: medical histories, circadian rhythms, moving from the south to the north
Like major depressive disorder, SAD can result from a wide range of causes that ultimately depend on the specific individual, their medical history and the environment they currently live in.
Baddam noted that due to the complexity of mental health symptoms and conditions that range so widely from individual to individual, specific causes of mental health issues are often hard to pin down and generalize. However, examining the dysfunction of specific mechanisms that underlie the functioning of our bodies can often provide some insight, according to Baddam.
The body system underlying the disorder is known as the circadian rhythm, a regular bodily pattern that pulls the functions of many genes and organs together to tell the body when to wake up, when to go to sleep and when to perform other functions that keep people alive every day.
When the circadian rhythm isn’t functioning properly, Kryger explained, it’s often due to a reduction in the amount of light the body receives every day, resulting in SAD.
“A lot of our body functions depend on this, and for us, it’s light for the sun that synchronizes the circadian rhythm and tells us, ‘Oh, this is the start of our day,’” Kryger said. “You open your eyes and you’re exposed to sunlight, and this is the start of your day … And as the days become shorter and shorter, that system doesn’t work so well.”
In addition, where students and faculty are from and where they live also play an important role in SAD.
Both Baddam and Kryger spoke to the News about how a change of typical locale can contribute to depressive symptoms.
For people who “move from southern latitudes to northern latitudes … the seasonal affective symptoms can be much higher,” said Baddam. Kryger added that students who move from a warmer place to a “northern university such as Yale or Harvard” are more likely to experience SAD.
Impact on college life:
College students can experience stress from assignments, extracurricular commitments and more — and SAD does not make managing this stress any easier. Siona Jain ’26 said that it can be difficult to forge through life while affected by SAD.
“It’s kind of like you have a mental block,” Jain said. “You know you need to do the work, and you want to do the work, but you just cannot.”
As a professor, Kryger has also noticed that life at Yale seems to be permeated with incessant stress that can contribute to the severity of SAD and its symptoms.
He noted that in particular, Yale students appear to be under “a lot of stress.”
“A lot of the students are very motivated to work really hard and to learn as much as they can, and that can be very stressful just sort of in general,” said Kryger. “You add to that assignments that they may have, midterms that they may have, papers that they may have and all of that additional stress may sort of compound the propensity to feel depressed as the days become shorter and shorter.”
Jain noted how there were days she would stay in her room for 24 hours at a time, “maybe even more.”
How can students cope with SAD?
In terms of coping with and taking action to treat SAD, there are many lifestyle changes that afflicted students can make. Kryger and Baddam highlighted a range of approaches that can fit any student’s lifestyle and preferences, ranging from changes to wake and sleep habits, exercise habits and social life.
“One of the things that I always advise students, no matter what, is that they need to get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep,” recommended Kryger. “And the reason I say that is that a lot of Yale students get way less than 6 hours of sleep … so right off the bat, mood is not great if you’re sleep deprived.”
In addition, Kryger recommended that students “make an effort to be exposed to light,” particularly at earlier times in the morning. According to him, it is helpful to maintain a regular schedule.
Baddam and Kryger also noted that exercise, social interactions and stress management can play a significant role in coping with SAD.
“Exercise is one of the things which is quite important, which plays a role in regulating the circadian pattern,” Baddam said.
He recommended that if students or faculty have someone in their lives who is displaying depressive symptoms typical of SAD, it is crucial to make sure they receive the support they need.
Kryger mentioned a list of “no-brainer things” people can do, which include reducing coffee consumption and “as easy as it is for [him] to say, don’t stress out about exams and papers.”
Jain also spoke on her personal coping strategies for helping combat SAD.
“One thing that really helped me was taking time for myself through creative outlets,” she said.
At Yale, the two main pathways to mental health resources and treatment, including those for SAD, are Yale College Community Care and Yale Health’s Mental Health and Counseling department.
Students can reach out to make appointments with College Care Clinicians or Community Wellness Specialists at their residential colleges through the YC3 website. Yale Health’s Mental Health Counseling department offers services to all students at Yale, regardless of which health plan they are on.