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Winter blues and the onset of depression

Southern Connecticut State University

Winter snow and cold weather change the landscape and can offer beauty and fun. However, short winter days and navigating a frozen campus can present challenges to the physical and mental health of students.

With limited opportunity to be outside, students may display symptoms of cabin fever and the winter blues, also known as seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 25% of college students across the United States suffer from the winter blues. They may experience down or depressed moods as the days shorten in the fall and continue to feel depressed throughout the winter and into the early spring.

The winter blues are associated with variations in melatonin levels, a hormone produced during sleep, and serotonin, which controls mood, hunger and sleep. Although the winter blues are not as severe as long-term depression, they influence how a student effectively deals with everyday challenges. Conversely, students with depression or emerging depression may feel edgy and down, but those feelings do not resolve as spring arrives with its longer days.

In all cases when students are feeling depressed, we strongly encourage them to seek support on campus. To get an evaluation, the student should be referred to the Counseling Services office in Engleman B219. In cases where it seems like the student is at risk for any reason, the appropriate contact is the University Police at 203-392-5375

How do I know if my student depressed?

Symptoms may include:

• Change in mood, communication or typical behaviors
• Increased feelings of lethargy
• Difficulty waking up in the mornings or sleep difficulties
• Difficulty concentrating and thinking creatively in comparison to the summer months
• Difficulty performing tasks that normally would be easy/enjoyable
• Increased craving for carbohydrate-rich foods like chocolate and sodas
• Agitated, cranky, dissatisfied with previously tolerated activities or experiences
• Suicidal ideas, thoughts or feelings*

Does anything help to combat the winter blues and cabin fever?

1) Get outside! The more exposure to daylight the less the winter blues can take hold.

2) Move around! Aerobic exercise improves mood, but it also has been shown to reduce stress, which is connected to depression in college students. Aerobic exercise can lift feelings of depression because it increases serotonin levels. Even the act of briskly walking to classes can help a student start to feel better.

3) Eat right! Encourage your student to eat regularly and reasonably and to choose complex carbohydrates, like pasta and rice, and healthy simple carbohydrates like fruits during meals and to include proteins to maintain blood sugar levels. Students should stay away from unhealthy snacks that may cause momentary relief but ultimately decrease energy.

4) Sleep smart! Students who experience the winter blues need exposure to sunlight in the early morning. It is good practice to get outside or open curtains upon wake up. Also, try to limit sleep to eight-hour periods on a regular schedule. Inadequate or erratic sleep patterns increase levels of melatonin, which elevates the depression. Encourage your student to resist hibernation and nocturnal preferences; they should set a consistent sleep routine and avoid napping.

5) Don’t cheat! Remind your student to avoid using over the counter drugs, illicit drugs and alcohol to help change mood or to help with sleep. All three can have depressive side effects and are in general not helpful in combating depressed feelings.

6) Get help! If your student does not get better no matter what they try, it is time for outside help. A professional should evaluate depressed feelings that do not resolve or that cause any type of suicidal thoughts immediately. If your student is expressing suicidality in any form, take it seriously and get them connected to help immediately.

*Emergency contact information

University Police (for emergency intervention): 203-392-5375 (24 hours)

Dean of Students Office: 203-392-5556 (8:30–4:30 M–F)

Counseling Services: 203-392-5475 (8:30–4:30 M–F)


"Gannett: Winter (blues)." Gannett: Gannett Health Services. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Office of Communications
6001 Executive Boulevard, Room 8184, MSC 9663
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
Phone: 301-443-4513

Winter Blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder,
What it is and how to cure it. (1993).
Norman Rosenthal. New York: Guilford Press.

Web MD Keyword Search: Winter Blues

Southern Connecticut State University

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