Iowans can feel a little humdrum this time of year as we enter the heart of winter and exit the holiday season. For our kids and teens, it’s also typically a time of year when there are fewer opportunities to get out of the house and hang out with friends because they may be between extracurricular activities or not have a neutral place to hang out with peers.

But how do you know when the winter blues or cabin fever is actually something more?

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression also known conversationally as seasonal depression or winter depression. When clinically diagnosed, it is technically called Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern.

As noted, SAD is a diagnosable form of depression that occurs during the fall or winter months when days are shorter and there is less sunlight. SAD is a biological response where the brain chemistry is changed due to the lack of sunlight and vitamin D.

 It’s possible that individuals who have or are experiencing depression are more prone to SAD. Typically, SAD symptoms lessen in the spring and summer months for those who don’t experience depression throughout the rest of the year.

What are the signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

While SAD is not the same as depression, those who experience this mental health condition exhibit depressive symptoms throughout the fall and winter months. Those symptoms can include the following.

  • Feeling sad for much of the day during multiple days a week
  • A sense of hopelessness
  • Lack of energy
  • Loss of interest in people and activities they once enjoyed
  • Changes in sleep patterns (sleeping too much or having insomnia)
  • Changes in appetite, weight or activity level
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased irritability
  • Rapid and intense mood changes
  • Frequent thoughts or mentions of death or suicide

Are teens more susceptible to seasonal affective disorder than other groups?

While some data suggests between 1.7% and 5.5% of 9- to 19-year-olds may have seasonal affective disorder, adults are more likely than teens to experience SAD. However, that means the older the teenager, the more likely they are to experience SAD. 

Other factors that can make teens more susceptible to SAD include

  • A family history of depression or SAD.
  • A previous clinical depression or bipolar disorder diagnosis.
  • Living further from the equator where the days get shorter and shorter during fall and winter.


There are many treatments that can help ease symptoms.

Light therapy (phototherapy): Individuals can sit in front of a light box or lamp for 20 to 60 minutes daily to mimic the effects of sunlight. Look for a cool-white fluorescent light with 10,000 lux.

Cognitive behavioral therapy: Therapy can help address some of the symptoms of SAD. Providers like Ellipsis can help connect your teen and family with individual, group or other therapy options.

Medication: A medical professional may diagnose antidepressants for those with severe SAD.

A healthy lifestyle: Just like with overall mental health, healthy habits like getting outdoors, staying physically active, eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep do wonders to improve mental health. It’s also important not to isolate yourself. Try new activities and make a plan to stay social.

What can parents, guardians, mentors and others due to help teens who may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder?

It’s important to remember that kids and teens often lack the communication skills to recognize and talk about their mental health struggles, so they may show their symptoms in negative behaviors. Concerned adults can ask nonjudgmental questions like, “I see you experiencing ____. Are you feeling different or struggling with your mental health?”

 Make it known that you are ready to listen whenever they are ready to talk. You can also lead by example and say, “I’ve been struggling with my mental health lately. Are you feeling OK?”

If you think a child or teen in your life is struggling with SAD, it’s also a good idea to reach out to a mental health provider like Ellipsis or to a pediatrician.