You should not ignore SAD, as it can be effectively treated.
If you think you are experiencing SAD, talk to your doctor. Treatment may be as simple as staying out in the sun for a time each day, or it may mean being treated for depression through the winter months.
It’s important that you take SAD seriously, as it can get worse and lead to other problems such as substance abuse, school or work problems, loss of interest in relationships and even suicidal thoughts.
The risk of suicide in people experiencing any form of depression is significant.
It’s important that if you are having any suicidal thoughts, you seek help immediately.
What causes SAD?
The exact cause of SAD is unknown. It may be that the drop in sunlight hours affects the body’s chemical balances and make our body clocks go out of step. SAD is less likely to occur in New Zealand than in countries that have little sunlight in winter.
How the doctor determines if you have SAD (diagnosis)
There is no test to diagnose SAD. Your doctor will listen to your description of your symptoms and make an assessment based on that.
For a diagnosis of SAD, the pattern of symptoms starting during autumn/early winter and reducing in spring/early summer must have occurred during at least a two-year period, with no other episodes of depression during that same timeframe.
Some SAD symptoms are similar to other conditions, so your doctor will want to rule these out by getting a full understanding of your experience. They may carry out tests for this reason, and it may be helpful for them to hear your whānau/family’s perspective, if you are comfortable with this.
The treatment of SAD can involve a number of aspects, each of which is tailored to your individual needs. For most, a combination of light therapy, medication and talking therapies such as counselling will be effective.
Increased exposure to sunlight can improve symptoms of SAD. For this reason, your doctor may suggest outdoor time each day, or light therapy, which involves sitting in front of special lamps every day. These special light boxes give around 10 times the intensity of ordinary home lighting and have been shown to be very effective.
Talking therapies and counselling
Supportive counselling is a treatment for milder forms of depression, where it is as effective as antidepressant medication. Your doctor will explain what is available locally and which type of talking treatment is most suitable for you.
Your doctor may prescribe antidepressants. Finding the right medication can be a matter of trial and error – there is no way to predict which medication will be effective and tolerated (have fewer troublesome side effects) by any one person. Your doctor may recommend starting treatment with an antidepressant before your symptoms begin each year.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, medication may still be an option for you. Talk with your doctor about what is best for you and your circumstances. If you are prescribed medication, you are entitled to know:
- the names of the medicines
- what symptoms they are supposed to treat
- how long it will be before they take effect
- how long you will have to take them for and what their side effects (short and long-term) are
- what the process of stopping taking them (withdrawal) could look like.
Remember that it may take several weeks to notice full benefits from an antidepressant.
Thanks to Joanna Macfarlane, clinical psychologist, and members of the Thriving Madly peer support network in Christchurch for reviewing this content. Date last reviewed: September, 2022.
Thanks also to Sutherland Self-Help Trust for making the 2022 updates possible.