Are you SAD?
How UBCO’s international students cope with Kelowna’s dreary winter month
UBCO hosts an international student community comprised of those who consider home to be Bali, Hawaii, India, Mexico, the Cayman Islands, California and many other beautiful vacation hot spots around the globe. These students, now shoveling snow out of their driveways between classes and shopping at Canadian Tire for boot treads must adjust their lifestyles for coping with snow instead of sunshine.
“During the winter I try to leave my house as rarely as possible, and definitely don’t socialize with my friends as often as I would during the rest of the year.” Explained one third-year UBCO student whose hometown, Calgary, is currently covered by more snow than Kelowna. As most Canadians experience some version of the winter blues, living in a climate that hosts characteristically dark and dreary winters, others suffer from a more extreme version of this snow-induced funk—especially those new to the dark climate.
How does one establish a link between holiday-induced grumpiness and a clinical mental illness? According to an article co-written by Dr. Lam, the director of the Seasonal Mood Clinic at UBC Vancouver, there are defining symptoms to watch for. Changes in one’s mood, sleep, appetite, and energy between winter and summer was formerly recognized as being the winter blues. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that these symptoms were assigned to an illness termed Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and recognized by the National Institute of Mental Health. Untreated, SAD can result in any or all of the following complications: major depressive disorder, bipolar I and II disorders that do not have a seasonal pattern, cyclothymic disorder, dysthymic disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, hypothyroidism, and drug or alcohol abuse.* A weight gain of 5 to 15kg each winter is common, and seasonal mood and energy symptoms are reported by most people, however Seasonal Affective Disorder is a recognized clinical subset of mood disorders linked to the seasons, as well as the amount of environmental light.
According to Lam, recent research interest in SAD has been particularly influenced by the discovery of a dramatic response of SAD patients to light therapy. “I take vitamin D pills daily in the winter time, and try to stay indoors a lot,” a 4th-year UBCO student from Banff confesses. “I guess I avoid being social to some extent. It’s definitely not SAD, though.”
If domestic students are feeling the winter blues, how do those who have come to UBCO from sunnier spots in the world experience our winters? Furthermore, would a seasonal illness such as SAD exist in geographic locations missing a winter season altogether? Several of UBCO’s international students confirmed that the existence of such a mental illness hadn’t been brought to their attention until experiencing Canadian winters. A college student from Isla Mujeres, Mexico— an island off of the coast of the Mayan Riviera—admitted, confused, that he had never heard of SAD before. “It’s too hot here, we don’t want to be in the sun. We’d rather be in the shade.”
International students cope with the dark, dreary winter months in various ways—some more successfully than others. In search of an outlet to experience Canadian winters positively, Adrian Perez Ara, a 4th year UBCO student from Venezuela, discovered his love for the ski hill. He says that to cope with the depressing winter months, he now snowboards: “I use snowboarding in order to feel excited about the snow.”
Alberto Malave from San Diego explains that the winters in Kelowna drastically affect his energy levels and otherwise positive mood. “I feel like Droopy the Dog during the winter.” He explains that exercise is his only coping method, but that he is looking to learn additional ways to alleviate his winter depression.
Tate Kindrick, from Mauii, Hawaii, confirms that, “Yes I experience it. I didn’t realize that I was suffering from SAD right away though—not until I had been away from home for a long time.”
Another student from Malaysia shares her experience as an international student, coping with SAD: “My first year, we had a late winter with lots of snow. It was fun for the first couple days as it was a relatively new and amazing experience but it quickly got old. I come from Malaysia where the temperature rarely dips below 26 degrees, roads are superbly lit with street lights and shops stay open till midnight. Shops here were closed by 8pm—if not 6pm—roads were dark and there wasn’t much to do at night except go to pubs and clubs. I started hiding in my room more, shutting myself inside and away from the cold. I started noticing bad mood swings. I lost interest in my classes and skipped a lot of the early ones because it was too cold outside.
"When winter break rolled around, everyone was excited to go home. That’s when it hit me the hardest. I was home sick and stuck on campus while all my friends were elsewhere. Christmas time was even worse. Despite being invited to join some of my friends and their families for dinner, I decided to stay at home alone instead. January rolled around and my RA noticed that I was not in the best condition. She convinced me to see a doctor about my condition. I was advised to go on anti-depressants immediately. I did not take the route but decided to find alternate ways to help improve my moods. I got involved on campus, I went to the gym whenever I started feeling depressed and I was able to pull myself out of my funk.”
Treatment options proven to be successful exist for those coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Light therapy, pharmacotherapy, and cognitive behavior therapy have proven to relieve symptoms equally as effectively. Light therapy, a treatment that consists of patients sitting in front of a fluorescent light in daily sessions, is explored in the article "Seasonal Affective Disorder" by Stuart L Kurlansik. According to this article, patients should be positioned 12 to 18 inches from a white, fluorescent light source at a standard dosage of 10,000 lux for thirty minutes per day in the early morning. They must be awake with their eyes open, but are not required to look directly into the light (doing any preferred activity, such as reading, as long as light enters the pupil). If discontinued, most patients relapse after a similar time period that it took them to improve (1-2 weeks).
Light therapy treatment must continue until spring or summer—the patient’s usual remission time. Alternatively to visiting a physician’s office for therapy, light therapy units may be purchased from online retailers, drugstores, and some hardware stores, their average cost being $250. Very few negative side effects are associated with this type of therapy, these effects being mild headaches or eyestrain.
Lifestyle adjustments to prevent SAD symptoms are often recommended by experts. These adjustments include “exercising more often, increasing light in the home, practicing relaxation and stress management techniques, spending more time outside, and visiting sunnier, warmer climates.” Taking a mild medication such as Tryptophan has also proven to relieve symptoms of SAD.
Dr. Bulmer, a family physician who agreed to speak with The Phoenix on the subject of coping with SAD as a student, explained that overall the illness is thought to be caused by a disruption of the circadian rhythm and decrease in serotonin and melatonin. She added that SAD is found in higher percentages the farther north you are and the shorter the days become. Other risk factors include young age, female sex, and family history.
“For college students, I would definitely recommend spending time in brightly lit areas and also taking vitamin D.” Bulmer [who is the mother of Arts Editor Jeff Bulmer] adds that when your body lacks sufficient levels of vitamin D, as it often does in the winter time, aches and pains are often experienced.
If you’re feeling signs of depression during winter, it’s important to get assessed by a physician in order to gauge the severity of a possible illness. Specifically as a UBCO student, you can take advantage of the Health and Wellness center located in UNC 309 has a tranquility space where students use a SAD lamp as well as physicians who can provide aid.