UVM researchers studying treatments for seasonal affective disorder

Published: Jan. 10, 2019 at 5:24 PM EST
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"It's probably the most difficult time of the year, probably leading up to the holidays and then for a month or so after the holidays," said Lauren Bartlett of Grand Isle.

Bartlett knows right now is when she'll feel the effects of her seasonal depression the most.

"The days are still incredibly short right now and that's hard," she said.

"When we're having later dawns in the winter, the body is producing the hormone of darkness-- melatonin-- later in the morning. So the person is in a state of biological night," said Kelly Rohan, a clinical psychologist in UVM. "Most of us at a high latitude like this one, are going to experience some symptoms... So here in Vermont, we're really likely to suffer from this depression."

According to Rohan, between 9 percent and 10 percent of Vermonters suffer from seasonal affective disorder or SAD. Some of the symptoms include fatigue, loss of interest, guilt, suicidal thoughts, appetite and weight changes, and difficulty concentrating. Rohan says the three treatments that have proven most effective are antidepressants, light therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT.

"We're trying to teach people new ways of coping with this time of year like new habits and new ways of thinking about the winter season so it's not as negative of an experience every time it happens," Rohan said.

Through her research, Rohan argues CBT is the best long-term solution because it's a permanent lifestyle change.

To put it simply, cognitive behavioral therapy is like filling up a toolbox with skills to apply when you're feeling symptoms-- tools like exercise, journaling or reading. Light therapy involves sitting in front of a lamp for an individualized amount of time. Light therapy can be used independently but it can also be one of those tools in your box.

"It's one of the four elements necessary for life: food, air, water and light. Light has been used for healing for centuries," Nicholas Harmon said.

As the CEO of Verilux, the Vermont-based company that produces Happy Lights, Harmon knows light therapy is a tried and true treatment for a lot of people with SAD.

"However, just because light therapy is commercially available, you don't need a prescription to purchase a unit, doesn't mean that you should," Rohan said.

Like Rohan, Harmon says using light therapy should be accompanied by seeing a doctor who will recommend the right dosage.

"Our need for light is as different as our fingerprints," Harmon said.

Ultimately, it's up to SAD patients to determine which works best for them.

"Don't suffer another year," Rohan said. "Reach out and do something about it for the betterment of yourself and your family and others around you."

If you are 18 or older and have been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder or think you have it, you can sign up now for the Winter Blues Study Treatment Program.

or call 802-656-9890.