While the colder months promise more breaks and potential snow days for students, for some it can also bring seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Though this can be a challenging time for some, the Wellness Suite located in the IM Building offers students free use of Verilux HappyLight Energy Lamps— lights that students can use to help ease their seasonal depression.
The winter, assistant director of Health Promotion and Wellness Erin Raupers said, can be particularly difficult for students. While some may have seasonal depression — where a person’s mood would negatively change in the winter — others might just not feel their best.
“When we are in the winter months and don't have as much light, it's pretty natural even for a happy, positive person to feel kind of low,” she said. “So I would say that anyone that was feeling those symptoms could come in and benefit from using it.”
Raupers said even if students don’t find they’re affected by seasonal changes, the lights may help them to be more productive.
The lamps — which have 10,000 LUX designed to imitate sunlight — cause the body to create more of its own energy enhancers. This light, when used consistently over time, can make students feel more alert and productive after using it.
“When the light is coming through the eye,” she said, “there's some hormones that are triggered, or switched which are similar to that that would help boost the vitamin D.”
While Raupers recommends using the light for 20-30 minutes every morning as soon as one wakes up, she said it would probably be as effective any other time of the day so long as one uses it at that time consistently.
Raupers has tried out the light herself, and she said there were definitely positive effects. She said she’s heard the same from students.
“It did feel like I was very focused and productive,” Raupers said. “And because I don't have windows in my office, I was grateful to give it a try.”
While she doesn’t actively use it right now, Raupers said she’d be interested to use it more this winter.
In order to use it, the light is propped up in front of the student at an angle that doesn’t shine the light directly into the user’s eyes. Students are encouraged to read or do homework while they sit by the light, and they should not look directly into it.
Raupers said some students notice the positive effects right away, but it might take a bit longer for others.
“It's very individualized,” she said. “But I've had students who felt better right away, like after that 10 minutes… They just felt better.”
The lamps were brought to Penn State last March through a joint effort by Student Affairs, UPUA and Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).
While any student who wants to feel more productive can benefit from the light boxes, they could be especially useful for those experiencing SAD.
Natalie Hernandez Depalma, staff psychologist and assistant director of Clinical Services, noted the commonplace of a depressed mood in the winter season.
“I think it's pretty normal to experience a change in mood when the seasons change,” Depalma said. “That's something that almost everyone can relate to.”
Additionally, Depalma referenced the cyclical nature of SAD, and how the disorder can even affect people in the summer months.
Heightened anxiety in the summer is also a symptom of SAD, and can also lead to lack of sleep in some cases.
“Light therapy is really [as] effective as our talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressants,” Depalma said. “There are lots of things that can be really helpful if you meet the criteria for seasonal affective disorder, which has a lot of the same components if you're looking at the cold winter months, [like symptoms of] a major depressive disorder.”
Depalma also explained how light boxes are used to better an individual’s mood.
“Someone who uses a lightbox may experience an improved mood for that day, or someone who uses a light box may experience better sleep,” Depalma said. “Because when you expose yourself to bright spectrum light early in the morning, it gets your sleep cycle a little bit more where it needs to be, and it makes you feel more alert, which is the whole point of a light box.”
Depalma said she would recommend students use the light boxes — and if they can, purchase one for themselves.
“They're relatively inexpensive, you do have to use them consistently, you have to use them each day to really notice that they're helping you,” Depalma said.
At Penn State, Depalma said depression and anxiety are the most prevalent mental illnesses treated by CAPS. Both illnesses can be impacted by SAD and the changing of seasons.
Further, Depalma suggested various treatments for depressive symptoms, many of which are offered by CAPS on campus.
“If you're experiencing those kind of symptoms... talk therapy, using a light box or antidepressants can be really helpful, as are other things that we always recommend for depression, like increasing your activity level, increasing the amount of things that you like to do,” Depalma said.
It is also clear that Penn State students care more and more about mental health. Two of the last four senior class gifts have been some type of donation to CAPS.
According to Penn State’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health, on-campus counseling has seen an increase by an average of 30 percent in the number of students who sought help between 2009 and 2015. During that time period, student enrollment rose by 5 percent.
The center also found that in 2017 nearly half of students who sought counseling in the previous year had experienced symptoms of depression. Approximately 62 percent of people were affected by anxiety and one-third of those who sought help had contemplated suicide at some point in their life.
Though antidepressants in conjunction with talk therapy are most likely necessary in certain extreme cases, light therapy still remains an effective treatment for those who may experience symptoms related to SAD.
Depalma said students must first find out what works for them, and CAPS is a good place to start.
“I love that there are places on campus...where there's no barrier. So being able to go into the IM Building, go into the Wellness Suite, just like the opportunity to be able to use our services,” Depalma said. “I just think a lot of different roads can make people feel better.”
The class of 2020’s gift — an endowment to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) — se…