SAD Hits the City Hard

Night comes quicker in NYC during the winter months than in many other southern states.
SEASONAL SHIFT: Longer nights take a toll on New Yorkers suffering from seasonal affective disorder. Photo Credit: Angely Mercado

NEW YORK CITY – When 28-year-old Andre Thomas first moved to New York City from the Caribbean at age 9, he hated the winter. He said the dark and cold brought about depression and even thoughts of suicide.

“It affected my social life because I’d literally go out of my way to avoid people at all costs, including my friends and family,” said Thomas, originally from St. Thomas, in an email. “I just wanted to be alone and away from human contact.”

Three years ago, Thomas began looking at bridges to jump off of and even drafted a suicide note.

“I was unhappy with the way my life was going socially and professionally,” he said. “In conjunction with the seasonal depression, it was a perfect storm of helplessness.”

Though Thomas, a web show producer, said he’s doing a lot better now—he speaks to family about his symptoms and his mother and brother check in on him often—he still feels prone to depression during the winter months.

He isn’t alone in finding winter so depressing: about 5 percent of Americans are afflicted with depression associated with seasons changing, or seasonal affective disorder. According to Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a psychiatrist who first described SAD in the 1980s, there are several major symptoms for winter depression including increased appetite, weight gain, less energy, a desire to be alone and a greater need for sleep.

Depression is typically attributed to genetics, traumatic experiences and chemical imbalances in the brain. Doctors characterize SAD as a specific type of depression triggered by the changing seasons. People suffering from depression can be at a higher risk for SAD and people who don’t suffer depression may still experience symptoms of SAD during the winter. And unlike typical depression, which can occur at any time and has varying symptoms, SAD sufferers usually have the same reoccurring symptoms that begin during late fall and continue into the winter.

The science behind SAD is traced to extra hours of darkness in cooler seasons, which causes changes in the amount of melatonin and serotonin secreted in the brain. The hormone melatonin is produced in darkness and induces sleepiness. So the longer-lasting nights in wintertime allow time for more melatonin to be secreted. The excess makes us groggy and unfocused.

Conversely, more light causes a higher production of serotonin. A normal dose of it gives the brain a boost of calm, focus and alertness. The shorter days mean less serotonin, which means moods become increasingly negative and cognitive function suffers.

In a study Dr. Rosenthal helped conduct in the early 1980s, subjects from Nashua, New Hampshire; New York City; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Sarasota, Florida, were asked if their mood, weight and appetite changed in the winter. In each of the colder states—New Hampshire, New York and Maryland—nearly 50 percent of the subjects reported feeling worse in the winter as opposed to the summer. Meanwhile, less than 18 percent of the Florida participants had the same findings.

Conversely, 50.7 percent of Sarasota residents felt the same throughout the year, giving Florida the highest rate of seasonably stable residents. New York City’s rate, by comparison, was 25.5 percent.

On the shortest day of the year, Dec. 21, Florida gets a little over 10 hours of sunlight. New York City, however, only gets nine hours of sunlight and nighttime comes earlier, making it harder for New Yorkers to be exposed to sunlight.

Current treatments for SAD include regular psychotherapy and possibly antidepressants if symptoms become worse over the winter. Light therapy—exposing people to bright lights to increase serotonin in the brain—is also a popular option for people who have SAD.

Dr. Elizabeth Saenger, director of education at the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia University, said in an email that light boxes can be purchased online for individual use, but patients should make sure that the light doesn’t emit UV radiation and has around 10,000 lux of illumination (one lux is the amount of light a candle would reflect on a surface one meter away from it).

“I think people may use light therapy before they need it as a preventative measure,” she said.

Dr. Saenger also says that people should be informed about light boxes before using them as they’re not regulated by the FDA.

Dr. Rosenthal suggests that treatment is more effective when combined with other efforts, such as actively socializing and eating healthily.

Andre Thomas, who suffered from SAD for years, said that his own bouts improved after he began working out more often and contacting family members whenever he was feeling down—which he still does. He also said that the birth of his goddaughter in 2013 gave him something new to focus on after having a difficult winter in 2012.

“Since then I have had small episodes of seasonal depression, but never as bad as 2012,” he said. “I just work through it and don’t let it beat me. I had to look myself in the mirror and tell myself that I wouldn’t let it beat me.”

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