The university must help students suffering from winter depression

Winter in Edinburgh is reaching its pinnacle and exams are fast approaching. Edinburgh’s weather is hardly lauded as the reason for the city’s flourishing tourism on the best of days. I don’t think that even a member of the Svalbardian population would turn to Edinburgh for a tropical escape. For a student, these can often be difficult times. A pleasant walk into university becomes a rarity, as the horizontal rain pervades the streets and the winds render any prospect of staying dry under a flimsy umbrella impossible. The days are getting shorter and even during the seven hours of daylight we do get, the sun seldom makes an appearance   

The “winter blues” many of us experience at times like these are not unusual. Changing seasons and the weather can have a big impact on how we feel, and sometimes this sadness might be more deep-seated than we think. Seasonal affective disorder, aptly shortened to ‘SAD’, is a form of seasonal depression most commonly attributed to less exposure to direct sunlight during the winter months.

According to the NHS website, a leading theory stipulates that a shortage of exposure to sunlight can cause a part of the brain – the hypothalamus – to stop functioning properly. This has the potential to increase the production of melatonin and reduce the production of serotonin. These hormones affect one’s sleep, mood and appetite, and the irregular production of them has been linked to depression.

Without doubt, the conditions in Edinburgh during the winter months might lead to this “winter depression”, which is potentially compounded by the added stress that a lot of students might experience during the exam period. This begs the question: what we can do to combat these difficulties?

The NHS website and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provides some recommendations on how to treat SAD. The advice given by NICE is that SAD should be treated like other forms of depression, recommending cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and antidepressant medication. But for those who do not opt for such treatments, there is a variety of easy self-help alternatives.

One should attempt to increase their exposure to direct natural sunlight, take regular exercise, maintain a healthy diet, and make one’s work and home environments as airy as possible. Talking about these difficulties can also help to alleviate the burden of sadness during these times.

Although we can change the way that we live to improve how we feel, this might not always be sufficient in students’ daily, and sometimes stressful lives. It seems reasonable, then, to turn to the university to provide mechanisms of support to students who are experiencing winter depression.

The University of Toronto has taken matters into its own hands and introduced light therapy lamps to its main library. SAD lamps have been designed to help overcome “winter blues” by increasing exposure to light that mimics direct sunlight during Summer and Spring. Daily exposure to SAD lamps for 20-30 minutes per day is believed to be an effective treatment. The university could help further by creating greater awareness of SAD and providing easy access to CBT and other talking therapies.   

Changing the weather is beyond what can be expected of the university and students are not calling for the removal of the library windows so we can bask in occasional sunlight, but more can be done and there is perhaps something to be learnt from the experiences of others in treating SAD.

 

Image: Silviarita via Pixabay

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