Fall-Onset Depression: Six Ways to Help Your Teen

The leaves are starting to turn, and so is your teen’s mood. Suddenly, your energetic kid is having trouble getting out of bed. When they are awake, they’re hitting the carbs hard and smiling a lot less. They have more trouble concentrating on homework than normal and have a heightened reaction to any kind of rejection. When you ask, they say they’re just dragging. Is this just normal teenage angst or something a little more complicated?

You may have heard of seasonal affective disorder, or S.A.D., before. It’s now being called by a more descriptive title: Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern

In conversational terms, it’s depression that aligns with a certain season. The most common form of this disease is “fall-onset.” An estimated 14 to 36 million Americans have depressive episodes when daylight hours drop in the fall and winter. (Fewer people suffer from spring-onset depression, when opposite symptoms, like insomnia and weight loss, often occur.)    

Researchers aren’t sure what causes this disorder. It could be how seasonal changes disrupt circadian rhythms. It could be the lack of sunlight’s effect on melatonin, which regulates sleep, and serotonin, which regulates mood. No matter the cause, major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern often begins in young adulthood, but can be found in teens and children. Statistically, women and girls are more likely to experience depression brought on by seasonal changes. Symptoms can include seasonal fatigue, spiked appetite, irritability, weight gain, a sense of heaviness in the limbs, relationship problems and lack of focus. 

If your teen is suffering, what can you do to help? 

  • First of all, talk to your teen about what they are experiencing. Have they noticed changes during previous seasons as well, or is this the first time they have felt this way? Some teens may feel shame about the difficulty they are having getting their work done or relating to others. Help them understand that depression is not their fault, and there are many ways to treat it.
  • Make an appointment with your doctor and therapist to discuss treatment options. Every child is different, and every treatment regimen will be as well. In addition to counseling, your MD might prescribe vitamin D and/or melatonin supplements, seasonal-use antidepressants (under careful supervision) and/or phototherapy—planned exposure (from 10 to 45 minutes per day) to a high-lumen treatment lamp.
  • Establish healthy routines at home that can stave off seasonal symptoms: 
    • Exercise, especially early in the morning, can boost energy levels and moods.
    • Keeping shades and blinds up can let more daylight into your home. 
    • Healthy meals loaded with fruit and vegetables can balance out depression-induced carbohydrate cravings. 
    • Planning family time outdoors can help your teen get extra doses of much-needed daylight. 
    • Consistent bedtimes can help re-establish sleep-wake rhythms.
  • If necessary, talk to your teen’s teachers and help your student make a plan to keep up with schoolwork while treating the depression. Do they need to set aside extra time for homework or take a reduced class load? Ask them what they need to succeed.
  • Push pause on any big decisions: Teens shouldn’t be choosing colleges or quitting teams while depressed. Encourage your teen to give treatment some time before committing to any significant life changes.
  • Keep going! Help your teen find ways to continue doing the activities they normally enjoy. Instead of spending hours skateboarding with friends at the park, maybe all they can handle right now is a quick driveway session with a sibling. That’s ok! Lower expectations can take the pressure off and help them find their way back to feeling engaged.

Is depression holding your teen back from living a full life? Shelterwood can help. Talk to our admissions office today about holistic treatment options.

Sources:

Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern (Formerly Called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD),” WebMD. Accessed 8 October 2019. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder in Teens: Care Instructions,” MyHealth.alberta.ca. Accessed 8 October 2019. 

Winter Blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder and Depression,” Healthy Children Magazine. Winter 2008. Updated 21 November 2015.

Posted in Anxiety and Depression