Health & Counselling talks seasonal affective disorder

Be kind to yourself as seasons change

Illustration: RESLUS / The Peak

By: Mishaa Khan, Peak Associate


Nobody likes the gloomy, rainy season or shorter days, but it impacts some people more than others. So be mindful of SAD, aka, seasonal affective disorder, a mood disorder which occurs due to changes in weather, particularly decrease in sunlight. 

Individuals living with SAD experience consistently low moods for over two weeks, which diminishes their ability to follow daily routines. Other  symptoms include: changes in appetite, sleeping too much or too little, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, feelings of hopelessness, and more. 

To gain a counselor’s perspective and a better grasp of what students can do for themselves, The Peak conducted an in-person interview with Shereen Khan, a counselor at SFU’s Health & Counselling Services. 

Khan first recommends that students with SAD make sure they take walks during the day. Students should aim to be outdoors specifically between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. given Vancouver’s later sunrise. 

Unfortunately, many students have classes during 10 a.m. and 12 p.m., so it may be difficult to take a walk. However, Khan recommends an alternative method for sun exposure that students can use called artificial light therapy. 

“The light therapy can make a difference in their serotonin and melatonin levels, which are part of the symptoms where [students] are not sleeping enough and they’re generally feeling tired and sad,” she explains. 

Khan says that UV lights for SAD can easily be bought in places like Amazon for affordable prices. At other universities like BCIT, students can sit at various ‘sun stations’ for half-hour periods at a time. Khan also suggests sitting close to a light source whenever partaking in daily activities such as studying, eating, or hanging out with friends. A light source can be as simple as a sunny window, or even a bright desk lamp.. 

Along with an increased exposure to sunlight, Khan stresses the importance of various habitual lifestyle choices students can make in order to combat SAD. She explains it is important to start building these habits once autumn starts in order to prepare for when the sunshine decreases. These habits not only prevent lower moods, but are great for overall well-being. However, students shouldn’t fret if they haven’t gotten a chance to build those habits, there’s never a bad time to start. 

Eating a nutritious diet is also integral to combating SAD, Khan notes, as the gut has a significant impact on your mood and overall brain health. A well-designed diet would be filled with high amounts of vegetables and whole grains, moderate amounts of nuts and legumes, some healthy fats, poultry, fish, and low amounts of sugar, processed foods, and trans fat. Studies have shown that a nutritious diet can improve mood in depressed patients whereas, foods that contain a lot of sugar and are processed can worsen mood

With that said, maintaining a low-sugar diet can be hard, especially with so much tempting food available on campus. There are, however, healthier alternatives that students are encouraged to try. For instance, try eating nuts instead of pre-packaged granola bars, or kombucha or iced tea instead of pop and juice. And thankfully, there are also a few healthy eateries on SFU Burnaby campus that aren’t just fast food. There are places like Steve’s Poke Bar, the bowl and sandwich bar at Mackenzie Cafe, the Chopped Leaf, Quesada, Veggie Lunch, Diamond Alumni Centre, and even some options at Subway. Embark SFU also has a food rescue program that provides free produce to students every Monday and Thursday at Blusson Hall. 

Additionally, exercise plays a vital role in improving mental health as well. It results in the increase of endorphins (i.e. your happy hormones) and decrease in cortisol (stress hormones); both of these combined together can mitigate the effects of depression significantly. 

There are no resources that are specifically available by Health & Counselling Services at SFU that treat SAD. However, the resources that HCS does provide aid with all forms of mood disorders, mental health concerns, and physical health issues. Students can book appointments with counselors and mental health nurses to discuss strategies on how they can deal with SAD. 

Alternatively, students can also use an app called MySSP, which is a free, 24/7, confidential app available to all SFU students. You can use MySSP to text, call, or book an in-person appointment with a counselor. Please note that these counselors are not the counselors at SFU.  

The Peak wants to note that students should remember that this article is supposed to raise awareness about SAD, and it is not a means for self-diagnosis. If you are concerned about any potential symptoms, please see a doctor, counselor, or another mental health practitioner.