For some time now, scientists have known that a lack of sunshine in the fall and winter months can have an impact on some of us. In fact, the new DSMV (diagnostic criteria for mental health conditions) specifies a type of depression “with seasonal pattern.” This is a type of depression that comes from those less than sunny seasonal patterns. Although the diagnosis is often used for severe types of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), in my practice I have known many people to have more mild forms of SAD that in children and some adults can be diagnosed incorrectly as ADHD, or for those with a clear diagnosis of ADHD make their symptoms increase in severity. Here are some thoughts to consider:
Going back to school coincides with the fall and winter seasons so it may be difficult to determine if your child is having difficulty due to SAD or the increased demands of sitting all day at a desk. Keep track on a calendar of the levels of severity of the symptoms you are seeing using a 1-10 scale, 10 for the most severe symptoms.
Check your family history. If you have a relative with SAD, or you yourself find the days without sunshine more depressing, it may mean that some of that genetic load has been transferred to your child.
Exposure to light therapy can be a quick way to help understand and also diagnose the problem. In my practice, we have loaned out full spectrum lights for people to use at breakfast with their children (We don’t do this any longer because of the logistical issue of loaning and tracking their use). From 10 to 15 minutes in the morning is usually all that is needed for minor cases of SAD. However, monitor closely your reaction to this. Light exposure may in fact increase some ADHD like symptoms so perhaps start on a weekend to avoid any school complications.
Lights are now available at most places where medical supplies can be purchased. The problem of SAD has become so commonly known that you can even buy full spectrum lights on Amazon for as little as $59.00.
Remember that SAD can increase the symptoms of ADHD due to the depressive impact of the disorder. If you or your child have been diagnosed with ADHD, keep track of depressive symptoms throughout the year. We have a free tool, www.trackmood.com, that can help with this. With information and data comes empowerment for you and your child when you discuss symptoms with your health care team.
SAD can also be treated with the other methods effective for different kinds of depression. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Prescriptive Exercise can help along with light therapy and exposure.
Drop the video games and play outside. Perhaps the best treatment would be to have your child play in the snow, especially on brighter, sunny days. This natural solution will also help improve physical activity, brain health and physical condition. Join your child and build a snow sculpture or fort this winter. Get to a farm and pick some apples. Get outside and get going. It’s likely the best way to fight SAD.