Seasonal Affective Disorder in Teens

It isn’t uncommon for people of all ages to get a little down as fall changes to winter, the days get shorter, and the temperatures drop.  In most places around the country, the long, fun, sunny days of summer are gone and the bleak, cold days of winter loom ahead for months.  But for some people, the transition from season to season can cause a type of depression that is much more serious than being bummed out that summer is over.  This condition is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  It is a type of depression and it affects more people, of all ages, than you might think.   Current estimates indicate that about 6% of people, including adults, teens, and children, have Seasonal Affective Disorder.

For parents of teenagers, it can be enough of a challenge to figure out what is natural teenage moodiness and what is a mental health concern.   When the source of the moody behavior is Seasonal Affective Disorder, it can be even more challenging because the condition is rare in children and teens.  The average age for onset of the illness is 20 and more females than males are affected.

The main thing that differentiates Seasonal Affective Disorder from depression is the seasonal pattern.  A teenager with this condition will only experience symptoms for the same few months every year.  The most common form of the disorder is winter depression which affects people as the seasons shift from fall to winter.  There is also a form of the disorder called summer depression that begins in the late spring and runs through the summer.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The cause of SAD is unclear but lack of access to sunlight is suspected to play a part in the disorder.  When the amount of sunlight decreases or increases, it may affect the way our body and brain produces chemicals.  People with SAD may be more sensitive to these chemical and hormonal shifts.   These theories are supported by research that shows a person inNew Hampshireis seven times more likely to have SAD than a person inFlorida.  Anecdotal evidence that people with SAD who spend the winter months in a place with more access to sunlight do not experience symptoms.

Who is at Risk for Developing SAD?

While anyone can get this disorder, there are some factors that increase the risk of developing it including:

  • Family history – If you have a close relative with SAD you may be more likely to develop it.
  • Gender – More women have been diagnosed with the disorder than men.
  • Location – People who live far from the equator, either north or south, are more likely to have SAD.
  • Mental Health – Those people with depression or bipolar disorder may find that their symptoms are worse depending on the season.

What are the Signs and Symptoms?

The signs and symptoms of SAD are the same as those for depression but are only experienced during a specific season.  These symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Mood changes
  • Loss of enjoyment in activities, socializing, and pastimes
  • Lack of energy
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Problems with concentration
  • Changes in eating habits that includes craving high sugar foods

 How is it Treated?

There are several ways to treat SAD in teenagers.  The first type of treatment involves increasing the person’s exposure to full spectrum lights during the months when they experience symptoms.  These types of light bulbs mimic daylight and can relieve symptoms.  If simple exposure to more light isn’t sufficient to alleviate symptoms, light therapy may be used.  This approach uses special lights as well but concentrates the light in a light box or light panel.  The person with SAD sits in front of the lights for a specific amount of time each day until the seasons change again.  Psychotherapy and medication may also be used to treat teens with SAD.

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