Finding the best solution for Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is characterized as a depression that occurs during the fall and winter months, and disappears during the spring and summer. An estimated one million children and adolescents suffer from this disorder; however, it often is overlooked in the younger population. Here are answers to some of the most common questions parents may have about SAD.
What causes SAD?
Although the precise cause is unknown, there are a few factors that may influence the development of this disorder. The reduced sunlight during the winter months may disrupt your child’s biological clock, and lead to feelings of depression. Researchers have also found that there is a reduction in serotonin levels during the winter. Serotonin is responsible for a child’s mood, and low levels are associated with depression. Finally, melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone, increases with diminishing light exposure. Melatonin also influences sleep patterns and mood.
What are the risk factors for developing SAD?
SAD can affect any child or adolescent, but there are certain factors that place a person at higher risk for developing it. As with many mental health disorders, family history and genetics may play a role. SAD is also more common in those who live in the northern states/countries where the days are shorter during the fall and spring. Females also tend to be at higher risk for experiencing SAD.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
SAD symptoms range from mild to severe. Typical symptoms include fatigue, oversleeping, and the loss of interest in activities that your child enjoyed previously. In addition, your child may become irritable, anxious, and may gain weight during the fall and winter months. Some children and adolescents express feelings of hopelessness and guilt. Finally, some kids may experience difficulty concentrating, which could affect their school performance. Those affected typically show an improvement in their symptoms during the spring and summer months.
When should you have your child evaluated for SAD?
You should have your child or adolescent evaluated by a health care professional if symptoms begin to interfere with her quality of life and school performance. In addition, you should take any complaints of suicidal thoughts seriously and seek prompt medical attention for your child or adolescent.
How is SAD treated?
Light therapy is the most recognized form of treatment. This treatment could be as simple as making sure that your child plays outdoors every day for at least 30 minutes, even on cooler days.
For some kids, exposure to a light box may be necessary. This requires you to purchase a box with very little UV light, in order to avoid injuries to the lens of the eyes. It is very important that your child see your health care provider before you purchase this product. Although side effects are rare, some kids may complain of eyestrain, difficulty sleeping and headaches. Treatment usually lasts 10 to 15 minutes a day during the fall and winter months. You should not consider a tanning bed to treat SAD, as it will expose your kids to the wrong type of light, and could be harmful to the skin and the eyes.
Children and adolescents with SAD prefer high-carbohydrate diets, which can result in weight gain, so providing your kids with a health-balanced diet is important. In addition, you should purchase healthy snacks for them — such as fruit, yogurt and granola.
Kids need a routine schedule, especially regarding sleep. Although those affected prefer to sleep for extended periods, it’s important to get your kids up in the morning and encourage them to spend time outside.
For children and adolescents who have more severe symptoms, your provider may prescribe antidepressant medication such as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). You should be aware that your child may be taking these medications for a few weeks before you notice any improvement.
Psychotherapy is another option for kids who are more severely affected by SAD. This type of therapy may help those affected with SAD to manage their stress and cope with this disorder.
A newer treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is based on the idea that how we think may affect how we feel and behave. This type of psychotherapy may help change the way your child or adolescent thinks and, therefore, improve negative feelings and behaviors. CBT has been used along with light therapy with promising results.
Can SAD be cured?
SAD may be effectively treated. However, researchers are hesitant to say that this disorder may be cured at this time. Each child and adolescent responds differently to the various types of treatments available. The important thing for you to do as parents is to find a treatment that best suits your child, and to be consistent in implementing it.
Susan Kennel, PhD, ARNP, FAANP, is the Director of the PNP Program at the University of South Florida, Tampa. In addition to her faculty responsibilities, she practices one day a week with a private pediatrician in primary care.