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How to Manage Seasonal Affective Disorder

Overcast snowy day with a woman pulling a child in a sled

As we enter the darkest days of the year, remember that seasonal mental health concerns are real. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is most common among those who live in climates like ours where winter nighttime hours are longer than daylight hours(1). SAD is a specific form of major depressive disorder that follows a seasonal pattern. It is not classified in the DSM-5 as a distinct disorder.  Rather it's labeled as "Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern". This condition is associated with depressive symptoms during the winter months and—although rarer—during the summer months as well. These symptoms are seasonally recurrent and can persist for about four to five months. Of note, research shows that perinatal depression is more likely in women who have given birth in the winter months(2).

To identify SAD, Mayo Clinic recommends a physical exam, lab work to rule out underlying causes, and a psychological exam using a validated screening tool, such as the PHQ-9(3). For assessing and treating SAD in pediatric populations Child Mind provides useful information. In addition to watching for signs of SAD among those we care for, health providers can take special care of themselves during this season as well.

Self-Care strategies to prevent and manage SAD3:

  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule and routine
  • Spending time outside in nature and in the sun especially in the morning
  • Exercising and eating a balanced diet
  • Tracking moods and activities

Treatment strategies for SAD4:

  • Light therapy
  • Psychotherapy (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has the most evidence)
  • Antidepressant medication
  • Vitamin D

As always, Illinois DocAssist is here to support you as you care for your pediatric and perinatal patients who may experience SAD and other mental health concerns. Our psychiatric consultants are a phone call away at 866-986-2778 or you can request a free consultation via our online form.