Seasonal shift brings mental health misconceptions

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Chilly, dark mornings. The shifting of clocks. Holiday malaise. The concept of “seasonal depression” seems to be popping up in conversations more frequently than ever, especially in Pacific University’s backyard; the Pacific Northwest. And while often mentioned by tired students in half-joking tones, this buzzword and its real existence may benefit from more attention and understanding.

“I think there’s a lot of misconceptions surrounding this issue because so many different words and terms are used. So, I do think it’s important to note that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is not a separate type of depression,” explained Dr. Laura Stallings, Director of the Student Counseling Center.

“If someone were to be diagnosed with SAD, they actually have to meet the full diagnostic criteria for a major depressive episode and they have to have experienced those episodes of depression in the context of a specific season — typically late fall and winter,” she noted further.

Additionally, these major depressive episodes must occur at least twice for a SAD diagnosis, displaying a seasonally-linked pattern year after year. However, according to the Counseling Center, SAD details the exact same symptomology as major depression, simply not as overarching in time.

The Mayo Clinic reports symptoms of SAD can include but are not limited to: feeling depressed, losing interest in normally enjoyed activities, low energy, sleeping troubles, appetite changes, difficulties concentrating, feeling hopeless and in some cases even having thoughts of death or suicide.

Fewer hours of light shift humans’ circadian rhythms and can often bring down their overall mood or make them feel more sluggish than normal. But, as Stallings notes, a much smaller proportion of folks actually experience SAD than one might assume.

According to Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Alfred Lewy, about 5% of the population in the Portland metro area, including that of Forest Grove, is “severely affected by the disorder” and another 15% is “moderately affected.”

In a 2016 interview with FOX 12 Oregon, Lewy explained the disorder itself is not as simple as people may assume either.

“It’s not because of the clouds or the rain, it’s because of the latitude we live at, 45 degrees” Lewy told the news station. “The days are short in the winter and it’s not having the sun in the morning that’s what triggers it. We need to wake up in sunlight and in the winter solstice that’s very hard to do, unless you’re able to sleep late.”

For college students, sleep and wake cycles can already feel out of balance, but dramatic light shifts like that of daylight savings can make things all the more difficult regardless of an official SAD diagnosis. Though, both Lewy and Stallings believe some factors may help reduce winter funk, crediting light therapy boxes and, if clinically diagnosed with SAD, psychotropic medications provided by medical professionals.

Lucky for Pacific students, the Student Counseling Center now has their own light box which, according to Stallings, they’re thinking of moving to their waiting room. “Giving students that type of access, they could just come sit in our waiting room if they wanted to get some extra exposure,” Stallings said.

In addition to experimenting with this new therapy, Stallings also encourages students to visit the Student Health Center or their private medical provider as vitamin D deficiencies are not uncommon during this time.

Beyond these helpful avenues, talk therapy can also be beneficial as holiday and finals season can be particularly emotionally draining for college students. Stallings urges students who feel overwhelmed, increasingly unhappy and or burnt out to practice self-care, hygiene and reach out to available resources — including on and off-campus counselors.

“While initial consultations may be scheduled anywhere from a day to two weeks out at the latest, if students have a more urgent need they’re always welcome to visit during our walk-in hour at noon,” Stallings said. From there, counselors can then point students in the right direction, whether that be their own Mindful Coping Group, the Student Health Center or off-campus therapists — which Stallings says the center has become more comfortable suggesting as a means to avoid a lengthy waitlist.

If students are concerned with the extent at which the center can operate under its current conditions, Stallings advises them to not only voice their concerns directly, but use activism to encourage mental health awareness and support across campus.

“I think activism is an incredible tool because, to be very frank, we don’t have a lot of control over financial allocations and what it might look like to provide more staff,” Stallings said. “I encourage folks to gather and make sure their voices are heard if they do have concerns over mental health care.”

The Student Counseling Center is located just across the street from Walter Hall and can be reached at 503-352-2191 by phone or via email at If urgency is a factor, Washington County’s Crisis Line can be reached at 503-291-9111, or, those in need may text “GO” to 741-741 to avoid voice-driven conversations.


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