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What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a specific kind of depression that comes and goes with changes in seasons. It has all the same symptoms as major depressive disorder, but it only happens during specific months of the year.

Kids with seasonal affective disorder feel sad or irritable during certain times of year. When the season changes again, these symptoms of depression go away.

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is a specific form of major depressive disorder, and it has all the same symptoms.

The biggest sign of seasonal affective disorder is a major change in mood that happens along with a change in seasons. A depressed child will usually feel sad or irritable for no reason and lose interest in things they normally enjoy. Other symptoms include:

  • Feeling hopeless
  • Lacking energy or seeming lazy
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble making decisions
  • Struggling in school
  • Low self-esteem or saying negative things about themselves
  • Having trouble talking to friends
  • Eating too little or too much
  • Gaining or losing a lot of weight
  • Being tired all the time
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Thinking about or attempting suicide

These changes last for at least two weeks and they go away when the season changes again. Most people with seasonal affective disorder experience it in the fall and winter, but it can happen in the spring and summer too.

How is seasonal affective disorder diagnosed?

To be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, kids have to show several of the above symptoms for at least two weeks. The pattern of depression that comes and goes with the seasons also has to happen for at least two years for it to be considered seasonal affective disorder instead of another kind of depression.

How is seasonal affective disorder treated?

Often, the recommended treatment for seasonal affective disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT teaches kids how their thoughts shape their feelings and behaviors. The therapist will also encourage them to return to activities they liked in the past, stay active, and spend time outside. This is called behavioral activation.

In some cases, medication is used in combination with therapy. The most common medications prescribed for seasonal affective disorder are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These medications can have side effects, but they are safe for children to use with proper care from their doctor.

Some people with seasonal affective disorder also find light therapy helpful. Light therapy involves looking at a special lamp that mimics sunlight, which can help people who get depressed at times of year when there is less daylight.

This guide was last reviewed or updated on December 18, 2023.