Speak Your Mind: Northwestern University students and faculty on seasonal affective disorder, white light therapy

SAMMI BOAS: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Sammi Boas.

ANIKA MITTU: I’m Anika Mittu.

OLIVIA DEMETRIADES: And I’m Olivia Demetriades. Welcome to “Speak Your Mind,” a weekly podcast dedicated to discussing mental health and self-care on Northwestern’s campus. Our goal is to facilitate a conversation about mental health that goes in-depth about what students are really experiencing and try to shatter the stigma surrounding mental health.

SAMMI BOAS: We’re well into the Midwestern winter, and although the days are getting longer, we have a while to go before spring is here. Along with constant midterms and the dreary weather, some students on campus face seasonal affective disorder, or SAD for short. Though this disorder is often dismissed as the “winter blues,” its symptoms are comparable to those of clinical depression. SAD typically starts affecting people in the fall and continues to manifest throughout the winter.

OLIVIA DEMETRIADES: We spoke to sophomore transfer student Cole Sias about her personal experiences with seasonal affective disorder.

COLE SIAS: Hi, I’m Cole Sias. My major is psychology and I’m from Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

OLIVIA DEMETRIADES: Can you give a little bit of background about your experiences with seasonal affective disorder?

COLE SIAS: So last year, I went to school in Maine, and it was a lot worse there because the sun set at 4 p.m. and I was like, “Oh, I’m straight up not having a good time.” And then this year, I started seeing my counselor and she’s like, “yeah, that sounds like seasonal affective disorder,” and it’s definitely hit this year too. It’s been awful. I bought the HappyLight. I bought the diffuser. I bought all this stuff and it wasn’t working, so now I’m on drugs which are helping.

OLIVIA DEMETRIADES: The HappyLight is a light box that mimics daylight. Daylight stimulates hormones and neurotransmitters like serotonin which improves mood and happiness. After trying these coping strategies, Sias decided to seek help from the university.

COLE SIAS: So I went to CAPS, and they recommended me to an outside therapist. Her name is Christine. She’s great. I see her every other week. The winter hit and I was like, “I’m feeling amotivated; I don’t want to get out of bed.” She’s like, “well, it sounds like you have seasonal affective disorder, but I can’t diagnose you.” So then she sent me to my pediatrician at home, who was the one who actually gave me the drugs that I needed. It was a process, and they won’t prescribe it to you here at all, but we’re here now. We got them. We got the refills.

OLIVIA DEMETRIADES: That’s good. Do you have any other specific coping mechanisms that help you when you’re feeling particularly down?

COLE SIAS: I spent a lot of time working out, and I also am definitely the needy friend, a little bit. I really hate being alone. But I’ve gotten really good at reaching out to people because last year I was really isolated, which made it a lot worse. So yeah, I spend a lot of time with as many people as I possibly can.

OLIVIA DEMETRIADES: Do you think that there’s a sort of stigma surrounding seasonal affective disorder? If so, do you think it’s comparable to stigma surrounding other disorders?

COLE SIAS: So I feel like seasonal affective disorder is weird because it feels like fake depression. I mean as far as I know, I’m not depressed year-round. And so it feels like, “oh, am I just like doing this for attention? Am I just as sad as everyone else because the weather’s bad?” And honestly, I feel like the stigma around mental illness in general is kind of decreasing, but maybe that’s because I have a lot of friends who are mentally ill, so we just talk about it a lot. It’s definitely a weird thing to talk about, especially for me personally, because sometimes I feel like I’m faking it — which, like obviously, I’m not. But like overall, it’s not bad. Everyone I’ve told is just like, “cool. Let me know if you need anything.”

OLIVIA DEMETRIADES: Do you think that Northwestern has the proper resources available to help students deal with seasonal affective disorder?

COLE SIAS: No, because Northwestern will not prescribe you antidepressants. And I think that that would be an important thing for the school to be able to do, especially because a lot of people here are not super happy. I think that they’re doing a good job with the fun stuff. They’re like, “oh, we bring in dogs for finals week, and we have white lights,” which are all good, but at some point, sometimes you just need the drugs. And if they won’t give those to you, I think that’s a problem.

OLIVIA DEMETRIADES: Students like Cole join the estimated 10 million Americans who suffer from SAD, according to Psychology Today.

SAMMI BOAS: Seasonal affective disorder tends to affect women more than men, as about four out of five people who have SAD are female. SAD tends to develop in people between ages 18 to 30. College students are also at a heightened risk of experiencing SAD, as they tend to wake up and go to sleep later, limiting their exposure to sunlight.

ANIKA MITTU: We also spoke to the Northwestern Recreation associate director of fitness and wellness, Nancy Tierney, about white light therapy, which is currently available in the wellness suite at SPAC. Northwestern started offering white light therapy in 2018.

NANCY TIERNEY: Early in that year, it was brought to my attention that Purdue was offering this, and it intrigued me because I know a lot of people that had benefited from lightboxes. And so I looked into it. They shared with us what their setup was. I initially just thought this would be a really great free service. All I had to purchase the boxes, and then we created the space. And you don’t have to be somebody who’s suffering from seasonal affective disorder. I think we can all benefit from this. I think we all know what it feels like to go several days where it might have been rainy or gloomy. And then we have a bright sunny blue sky day and everybody just feels a little better.

So we got all this in place, decided to launch it in the fall of 2018. We started in October and test-piloted. We opened it up to students, our members and our massage clients and kind of wanted to see what the demand would be. And eventually we opened it up to everyone, so it’s really free and available for students, faculty, staff, alumni, the public, our facility members. It’s a great way to not only help people, but get people here in the door that might not have otherwise ever come to the wellness suite. As a department, we’ve really focused on mental health on campus, and I think this just kind of plays into everything else we’re doing.

ANIKA MITTU: Do you have, or interact with, any students who come here regularly?

NANCY TIERNEY: We probably serve Northwestern students the most as far as population. They’re about two-thirds of everyone that’s coming in. The rest are probably a mix of members and massage clients, maybe a few faculty and staff. We get regulars who come in two, three, four times a week. So, anyone that comes the first time, we give them the handout; we have them sign a waiver. And then each time thereafter, they just sign in, and then can come on back. We try to make this a safe place, a place where people feel very comfortable to just come and do whatever. They might be on their phone, they might be on their laptop, maybe reading a book. It’s so easy, you literally sit and it enters in through your eyes. You can pretty much do anything other than close your eyes and go to sleep. So we want people to be able to come and feel that they can just come back and do whatever they want and not feel like anyone’s watching them. And I think people do feel very comfortable.

ANIKA MITTU: After talking to Nancy, I decided to try out white light therapy for myself. I sat on this huge beanbag chair and went through emails on my phone while the white light box shined directly in my face. The whole experience was pretty nice, and I did leave feeling a bit more energetic. I can definitely see how having time to just sit could be relaxing, in addition to the benefits of receiving white light therapy. But, even if you’re busy, it may be worth it to come by and try out the therapy. You just might feel the benefits and feel glad that you came in.

NANCY TIERNEY: This morning a young man came in for the first time. And you know, he was all excited. Didn’t know if he had enough time, but said he was going to come back. So he left. He was back within a few minutes. He’s like, “you know what, I think I’m going to try to squeeze this in before my class.” He came back, sat here for 15 minutes and just said, “that was amazing.”

SAMMI BOAS: Though we can’t control Midwestern winters, we can try to seek out support that helps make us feel a bit happier and more energetic. That’s all we have for today on “Speak Your Mind.” I’m Sammi Boas,

ANIKA MITTU: I’m Anika Mittu.

And I’m Olivia Demetriades. Thanks for listening!

SAMMI BOAS: This episode was reported and produced by me, Sammi Boas, Olivia Demetriades, and Anika Mittu. It was edited by Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava. The editor in chief of The Daily Northwestern is Troy Closson.

Email: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]

Twitter: @boassamantha, @anika_mittu

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