The Ohio State University Alumni Association

The university's chief wellness officer explains how to identify seasonal affective disorder, and how to counter it.


Even for those of us who enjoy winter sports or boot-and-sweater weather, few people look forward to the enduring gloomy gray skies, piled-high snowdrifts and bone-chilling temps.

A few peaks of the sun can help some folks return to good spirits. But for millions of Americans, winter months bring a serious mental health concern: seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This is a type of depression caused by a lack of natural sunlight. Most find it generally lifts during spring and summer.

So how do you know whether you have a case of the blues or depression?

A few days of sadness or feeling down in the dumps that goes away without treatment is usually nothing to worry about. But if your symptoms last longer than two weeks and interfere with your functioning or ability to engage in things you like to do, you could have depression.

What can you do?

  • Exercising is a great way to boost your mood by increasing serotonin in your brain. Serotonin acts to elevate mood and lessen feelings of depression.
  • Eat healthy, light and often. Snack on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and protein every three hours.
  • Stand more. As I talked about in the last issue, standing can add years to your life and increase your brain’s activity. It gives you more energy.
  • Get enough sleep. At least seven hours a night is needed for optimal health and brain function. (Be aware if you are sleeping much more than usual since this can be a symptom of depression.)
  • Stay present and be positive. The Present, by Spencer Johnson, is a wonderful book to remind us to stay connected with the present moment. I like to read a positive book for 5-10 minutes each morning to start the day with a great outlook.
  • Laugh more. Enjoy your friends and family — and socialize regularly. Life balance is important. It’s also important to set boundaries with your time, so don’t feel guilty if you say no to an invitation or request.

Common symptoms of depression include:

  • Sadness
  • Hopelessness (Pay attention to this symptom in yourself or others since it’s the top predictor of suicide.)
  • Fatigue
  • Withdrawal
  • Loss of pleasure and interest in activities
  • Decrease in sleep, appetite and concentration
  • Aches, pains, headaches
  • Anger and irritability

In addition, increased drug or alcohol use and anxiety often accompany depression.

There’s also good news to share. Once a first step to seek help is taken, depression can be managed successfully. Antidepressants can assist, too, especially for severe depression, and work well when combined with therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — the gold-standard, evidence-based treatment for managing depression — is based on the idea that how a person thinks affects how he or she feels and behaves.

Some people with SAD also benefit from light therapy, which involves exposure to simulated high-intensity sunlight. Treatment can include a combination of light therapy, antidepressants and CBT.

It’s important to remember not to lose hope, because depression is highly treatable. Just like healing a broken leg, the process requires time and the help of a knowledgeable professional.

Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk is the university’s chief wellness officer, associate vice president for health promotion and College of Nursing dean.