Alfie Chen dropped out during their junior year of high school.
They randomly started going days without eating, isolating themselves from the people around them and couldn’t pull themselves out of an endless depression cycle.
For years, Chen, who identifies with all pronouns, remained unaware of what was going on in her own mind. She wondered why these miserable thoughts were plaguing her.
Chen had been dealing with these intrusive thoughts and behaviors since he was 12 years old. But by the time he was approaching the end of his high school career, Chen couldn’t take much more.
Chen’s seemingly random spurts of depression and mania landed him in the hospital for six months. And for a while, it seemed like college wouldn’t be an option, until the now sophomore psychology major was diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder shortly after his hospital visit.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression with seasonal patterns that impacts approximately 6% of adults in the U.S., according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). For most people struggling with this disorder, their depression increases in the winter and sometimes summer.
Chen realized his mental health took a turn for the worse during the winter and summer, making his usual depression unmanageable.
“I realized I had it [Seasonal Affective Disorder] when different seasons hit and I would consistently feel awful,” Chen said. “Awful in a sense where I had no motivation to do anything, I was constantly tired and mainly in a bad mood. I lost motivation to do the things I liked. And it was always severe during the winter and summer.”
Chen was able to receive a diagnosis before attending college. This means she was able to try a variety of medications, therapy and other resources for coping with her mental illness.
Khrystina Warnstadt, a graduate student studying social work, had an entirely different experience.
Warnstadt says she has struggled with seasonal depression for the majority of her adolescent life. But without the resources to label it, her mental illness went unrecognized and untreated until college.
“I had never heard of seasonal depression until college and it started to make so much sense to me once I did,” Warnstadt said. “I didn’t realize until I heard of the concept and suddenly the mysterious symptoms I had all made sense. I’d always wondered why the fall and winter, which are my favorite seasons, hit me so hard. I couldn’t even enjoy the things I love so much.”
Warnstadt says that Seasonal Affective Disorder not only prevented her from participating in the activities she loves, but it also stopped her from being able to perform seemingly basic tasks, such as getting out of bed, brushing her teeth or showering. Her inability to do everyday activities has even caused her embarrassment.
“This, of course, causes me to feel a lot of shame and like there’s something wrong with me, or that I’m a failure,” Warnstadt said. “There seems to be a lack of understanding from university staff and professors about this struggle. Living in this cold, harsh winter climate definitely can make it worse. Everything seems to get harsher — the weather, the expectations, the darkness... it’s just more and more things piling up.”
The APA suggests that living farther from the equator can increase the risk of developing SAD. This puts UB students at risk, given that Buffalo is located nearly 3,000 miles away from the equator and is infamous for its brutal winters.
Chen says that moving to Buffalo has acted as a catalyst for her depression.
“The winters in Buffalo definitely have a big impact, and I catch myself often feeling really hostile and tired, also with the absolute need of just staying in bed all day doing nothing because I feel hopeless,” Chen said. “I very much dislike it but I try to be productive on the days that are even harsher, to keep myself on track.”
Vic Janis, a senior graphic design major, says that seeing the first snowfall of the year comes with overwhelming joy and intense anxiety.
“The harsh winters here aren’t easy,” Janis said. “I’m overjoyed when I see snow, but also terrified because my neighborhood, near South Campus, doesn’t receive the best plowing. When I get home it literally looks like midnight everyday. I don’t see much sunlight.”
Janis says that it was difficult to communicate about Janis’ depression to professors. This experience made Janis feel even more isolated.
“I was in the engineering department my first semester and it was so difficult to communicate with professors in those large classes,” Janis said. “I felt like a number. In my smaller class sizes in the art program I feel much more seen.”
While Janis struggled with receiving support from professors and instructors, Janis is grateful for UB counseling services and what they offer the student body. Even though Janis required “better expertise” and decided to attend counseling outside of the university.
Carissa Uschold-Klepfer, the Assistant Director for Outreach, Suicide Prevention Coordinator and Eating Disorder Treatment Team Coordinator says that UB Counseling Services has treated “many students” for Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Uschold-Klepfer says that SAD can lead to an overwhelming feeling of isolation, making individuals struggling with seasonal depression emotionally vulnerable. She recommends that students try their best to take care of their mental health year round, but especially during the winter.
“It can be beneficial to prioritize self-care, nutrition, sleep, socialization, mindfulness and support,” Uschold-Klepfer said.
There are also other, more fun ways to combat SAD.
Janis says that owning pets has forced Janis to be productive even when Janis’ depression reaches its peak. Janis’ hungry cats require Janis to go grocery shopping and perform other daily tasks that Janis’ depression usually keeps Janis from accomplishing.
“My cats kept me in a really good routine of getting up early enough for my classes because I have to feed them breakfast,” Janis said.
Janis recommends owning a pet for those who struggle with their mental health. But for students who live on campus and can’t get the necessary paperwork to own an animal, Warnstadt recommends students to remind themselves about the aspects of winter they enjoy.
“I love to decorate for Christmas early because it makes me feel cozy rather than super sad and empty in my home,” Warnstadt said. “I love Christmas and it makes me happy so that’s important for me.”
Another resource that Uschold-Klepfer says students can utilize is “Bright Light Therapy,” which uses a “light box” to mimic sunshine UVs and provide individuals with vitamin D, which can contribute to happiness.
Warnstadt urges students to keep an open mind in finding what resources work best in helping them through the winter.
“Whatever helps you is something you should schedule,” Warnstadt said. “I just recommend practicing kindness with yourself. It’s important to be gentle with yourself and not beat yourself up. You’re not a failure. This is normal and valid.”
Kayla Estrada is a senior news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kayla Estrada is a senior news/features editor at The Spectrum. She is an English major who enjoys rainy weather, “Bob’s Burgers” and asking people who they voted for. When she’s not writing, she can be found hunting for odd-looking knick-knacks at the nearest thrift store.