Seasonal Affective Disorder and youth mental health
November 18, 2022
As autumn and winter approach, celebrations and holidays are often in full swing. For many, however, darker, colder days signify a time of fatigue, depression, and mood swings.
As the days grow shorter and colder, and the holiday season approaches, it is common to feel tired, down, or stressed. However, seasonal affective disorder - a form of clinical depression - comes and goes with the seasons, and symptoms can last for several months. According to NHS Health Scotland, seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, can affect around 2 million people in the UK and more than 12 million people throughout northern Europe.
According to the Child Mind Institute, SAD affects women more often than men, and it starts presenting in older teenagers and young adults, though it can also affect younger children. Lack of sunlight during the shorter winter days has been linked to SAD, although this cause is not certain. Symptoms include near-constant and everyday feelings of despair, lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities, changes in appetite or weight, sluggishness and poor energy, difficulty falling asleep or oversleeping throughout the day, and even suicidal thoughts.
There is often an assumption that only adults are affected by this, but several studies indicate otherwise. Researchers have found that seasonal variation in overall symptoms of depression is more pronounced in youth than adults with SAD. This suggests that youth may be more vulnerable to seasonal depression than adults. Well-known SAD research reported that kids suffered from irritability, fatigue, school difficulties, and sleep changes during winter months, along with other symptoms found in adults. There is even a correlation between SAD and the academic calendar, as it has been proposed that summer decrease in youth suicide may be related to SAD’s prevalence in winter months. People may experience recurring depression episodes during winter but disappear in summer due to this phenomenon.
When a child or teenager experiences school difficulties during the fall-winter term, school counsellors and therapists should consider seasonal affective disorder, especially in Northern countries where there is minimal sunlight. There are a number of treatments available for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), antidepressants, and light therapy. Based on your symptoms and the nature of your condition, a GP will recommend the most appropriate treatment for you. Getting the best results may require a combination of treatments.
As a parent, considering changes in your child's usual behaviour, whatever that means for them, might help you recognise the likelihood of SAD. If you or your child has been diagnosed with SAD, it is important that you learn about the disorder to recognise possible treatments. There is still a lack of awareness around SAD and its impact on the youth, especially those in school. More research and data will help us better understand the long-term effects, potential prevention, and self-coping techniques for adolescents and teens. Help is always available through the NHS and there are many organisations you can contact for support, including YoungMinds and MindUK. You can also speak to your GP for further information and help.