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November 12, 2015

Winter woes: Seasonal depression can be treated

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‘Tis the season for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and the winter blues, now that the hours of sunlight are decreasing noticeably.


Kathryn Roecklein

Kathryn Roecklein, psychology faculty member in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, will be speaking Nov. 18 in the William Pitt Union lower lounge on how SAD and other seasonal mood changes might be affecting you and what you can do about it.

Her presentation is part of a continuing series from the mental wellness task force of the University Senate’s benefits and welfare committee.

“SAD is depression that occurs on a seasonal basis,” says Roecklein. “It does have the same symptoms and severity as major depressive disorder, and in fact the technical name for SAD is ‘major depressive disorder, with seasonal pattern.’ It’s just what we call depression that occurs in the winter and goes away in spring.”

The winter blues, on the other hand, create lesser depressive symptoms, “but people still might find it problematic or disruptive to their lives,” Roecklein says. “There are people who don’t seem to have any problem with the winter. Then there are the rest of us in the middle who notice some changes.”

She estimates 7 percent of Pittsburghers may have SAD. It has the same genetic, psychological and environmental risk factors as depression during the rest of the year.

Researchers still are trying to pinpoint exactly which genes are involved, but they believe the decrease in available daylight is the major environmental factor: “We don’t think it is temperature,” she says.

Roecklein came to her expertise in SAD beginning with her study of circadian rhythms, which are regular, daily biological sequences in our body processes. Circadian rhythms are likely what generate yearly rhythms, known as circannual rhythms, she notes. And once daylight gets really short, our mammalian circannual rhythms determine that it’s winter — and SAD may kick in.

Using a study of identical twins raised separately, SAD researchers have determined that genetics are nearly as influential as environment and psychology combined — 47 percent to 53 percent, respectively.


“Because people think they’ll feel better in spring, they may not be inclined to get treatment,” Roecklein notes. But SAD can account for a third to a half of a person’s depression across a year and can increase social, occupational and relationship problems. Depression also may lead to diabetes, obesity and other health problems, she notes.

If people were more aware of treatment possibilities, she says, they might seek treatment more readily. However, she adds, “there’s tons of stigma against depression and SAD is no different. That stigma is likely to make people less likely to seek treatment, to ask friends” for advice.

There is one advantage to having SAD over other depression: “We know when it is going to start, so we can actually treat it preventably.”

Light boxes are one effective therapy. They put out a bright light in the blue or full visible spectrum to counter the absence of normal daylight. Psychotherapy and antidepressant medications also can be effective.

Light therapy works best for SAD, but Roecklein says it can be effective for other types of depression. Best of all, it doesn’t cause any side effects or interfere with pregnancy or breastfeeding, as some antidepressant drugs can.

Those who experience SAD should consult their primary care physician or therapist to see whether treatment might be helpful, she advises. Those without insurance may contact the Clinical Psychology Center in Roecklein’s department, located in Sennott Square, which offers treatment from department students under the supervision of departmental faculty.

Those experiencing SAD also may wish to participate in Roecklein’s current research by contacting her at 412/624-9180 or

—Marty Levine  

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 6

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