It’s cold, snowy, and it gets dark out at 5:30. That could be considered depressing.
For many people, Alaska’s fall and winter are their favorite seasons. It brings Halloween, Christmas, the New Year and Valentine’s Day. Yet, for others, it brings hardships, struggles, and sleepless nights followed by sleepy, unproductive daytimes. Alaska’s fall and winter can take an emotional toll on one’s psyche and ability to properly function.
Although most people enjoy the light shows from the aurora borealis and frost-filled nights of Alaska, some may find it difficult to endure. These people may not only find it cold and dark but are often also depressed during these frostbitten months.
According to the Alaska Sleep Education Center, six percent of the U.S. population suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or as the majority of people know it by: seasonal depression.
Symptoms of seasonal depression range from fatigue to being completely sleep deprived. Teens experiencing SAD may also find they are becoming more and more socially withdrawn. They experience unexplained dejection.
“I can’t sleep,” Raeanna Trout, a junior at Eagle River High School, said, “I’m tired all the time and the days feel like weeks to me.”
As the hours of daily sunlight dwindles in the Chugiak-Eagle River area, the potential for vitamin D levels to significantly drop increases.
As the sunlight per hour drains from Alaska, it is “Obvious that the exposure kids get to the sun is below average, which has a negative impact on students,” Megan Charles, ERHS school nurse, said.
They are tired.
Vitamin D deficiency is a well-documented cause of fatigue – the SAD symptom many teenagers with seasonal depression don’t necessarily realize is a contributor to their struggle to keep up with their school work. The relationship between a lack of energy teens feel and the depletion of vitamin D in their bodies isn’t always recognized until professional medical help is sought. Teens just feel tired and it is often attributed to their demanding schedules and the early hour – 7:30 a.m. – that local teens start their school day. Yet, as the sun makes less of an appearance in the winter, teens often are unknowingly fighting off increasingly severe SAD symptoms that seem to slowly creep up on them until one day they are suddenly overwhelmed by it.
“My grades suffer, and I find myself not as interested in the things I usually love to do,” Trout said.
Students aren’t the only ones that notice the troubles teens face in the winter months. The drop in their grades is noted by teachers as well.
“The darkness definitely has an impact, I see a huge drop in grades during the winter,” Jaymee Keith, an ERHS teacher, said.
Combating SAD in teens is a delicate balance. It is because the symptoms of seasonal depression for teenagers prove more difficult to identify than in adult cases of SAD. Teens often don’t speak out when they’re feeling down for fear of being reprimanded for making “excuses” or simply because of their lack of previous experience with SAD, they don’t know they’re experiencing its classic symptoms.
“I found out I have seasonal depression because my friends told me I had been out of sorts lately,” Emily Workamn, a junior at ERHS said. “I asked my mom about it and she took me to the doctor.”
Now Workman fights off SAD symptoms by taking daily vitamin D pills beginning in September. She also makes a point to sit in the sun for at least 15 minutes every day – no matter how chilly the outdoor temperatures are.
Workman’s “sun-sitting strategy” is a good one as SAD’s connection to the lack of sunlight, which helps activate vitamin D, is best counteracted with natural sunlight.
But other options help as well. It’s as accessible as the local pharmacy aisle or can be prescribed by a physician. It is a “SAD” light – a somewhat contradiction in terms, but an effective way to get the light exposure many Alaska teens miss out on in the winter.
According to everydayhealth.com, teens with SAD that sit in front of a light box for 30 minutes per day to stimulate their bodies natural cycle and enhance the amount of serotonin produced by their bodies can find relief from SAD symptoms.
Just like with regular depression, everyone handles SAD in a different way.
Trout has found another remedy, music. “When I’m feeling down, I listen to my favorite music, it really helps improve my mood.”
Exercise and taking vitamin D supplements bring relief as well.
“Taking vitamin D medicines can help with teens’ skin, hormone balance, energy, and overall happiness,” Charles said.
Most importantly, teens shouldn’t ignore potential symptoms or how they feel. It is imperative that teens who think they may have SAD seek help.
“It feels so much better to be happy, and feeling better is possible for everyone,” Workman said.
Learn more about teens and Seasonal Affective Disorder online at www.teens.webmd.com/seasonal-affective-disorder.
Editor’s Note: Alina Cook is an editorial intern with The ECHO News and a student at Eagle River High School.