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Back to School Blues

Diagnosing & Treating Back to School Seasonal Affective Disorder

Back-to-school season can spark a flurry of emotions ranging from excitement at facing fresh challenges and making new friends to fatigue when it comes to early morning wake-ups and staring down mountains of paperwork.
While initially a new school year can be overwhelming, if you start to notice the change in routine is negatively impacting your or your child’s mood for longer than just a few days, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) could be the culprit.
This form of depression is attributed to the shift of seasons and tends to flare up as sunlight diminishes. Though most people think it begins closer to the onset of winter, doctors warn that the arrival of autumn and the start of the school year can trigger the disorder. (1) Read on to learn more about the symptoms and treatment of SAD.

What Causes SAD

While scientists don’t know exactly what causes the condition that’s categorized by lethargy and difficulty concentrating, it’s believed to be linked to hormonal changes brought about by the change in seasons. For example, melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep and wake cycles, is produced in larger quantities as the days grow shorter and darker, causing us to crave more shut-eye. Meanwhile, serotonin levels, associated with feelings of happiness and well-being, decrease as exposure to sunlight is limited, giving way to depression. (2)

Who Suffers From SAD

It’s estimated that six percent of the population experiences symptoms associated with SAD. Though the disorder typically affects older teens and young adults in their early 20s, children and younger teens can suffer from it as well. As with other forms of depression, girls or women are approximately four times more likely to develop SAD than their male counterparts. (3)
And just like other types of depression, brain chemistry, family history, environment, and life circumstances may make some individuals more prone to the disorder than others.

Know the Signs

How do you know if you or your child are simply having a hard time getting back in the groove or if you should be more concerned? Here are some symptoms associated with the condition you may want to watch for, particularly if they persist for two weeks or longer:
Changes in mood: Irritability, sadness, lack of enjoyment, getting upset or crying easily
Changes in sleep patterns: Trouble waking, feelings of fatigue or exhaustion
Changes in diet: Overeating and craving comfort foods such as carbohydrates and sugary snacks, weight gain
Difficulty concentrating: Lack of focus or motivation, taking longer to complete tasks
Less interest in socializing: Loss of desire to spend time with friends or attend extracurricular activities

Finding Solutions

If you or your child are exhibiting symptoms associated with SAD, there are multiple treatment options available. For those with a mild case, spending time outdoors and soaking up the sunshine before or after school can be enough to do the trick. Light therapy, involving sitting several feet away from a bright light for short periods, has been known to alleviate symptoms in those with more severe cases.
Establishing a routine and following the same bedtime and wake-up schedule also has proven helpful as has sticking with a healthy diet.
Should symptoms continue beyond a two-week period and common treatment options don’t seem to be working, consider speaking with your doctor or a mental health professional who can make a proper diagnosis and rule out other, more serious medical conditions. Back-to-school season can be exhausting but it shouldn’t be debilitating.

  1. Mommyish.com Article on Back to School
  2. Web MD: SAD
  3. Kidshealth.org on Emotion
  4. Web MD: Depression