Kerry Max Labrecque: “SAD in Vermont”

This article explores Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as SAD) and the impact it has on Vermonters.  It compares the results of my field research to current statistics, while relating the experiences of a Vermonter living with SAD.  Various methods for treatment are explored, including light therapy and cognitive therapy. 

SeasonalAffectiveDisorder_jpg_500x1000_q85 (Mayo Clinic , 2013)

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a relatively new area of study. It was established as a recognizable disorder in the 1980s, although it was discovered in the 1840s. (University of Vermont, 2013)  SAD is type of depression that affects sufferers only during those months of the year with the fewest daylight hours.

SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain resulting from shorter daylight hours and an overall lack of sunlight. Darkness triggers the production of melatonin, a sleep hormone that is linked to depression. As sunlight decreases during the winter, increased levels of melatonin may cause the changes in mood, energy level, and concentration, observed in SAD. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for mood, hunger, and sleep, is also implicated in SAD, although experts are unclear as to what role it plays.  (Bates College Health Center, 2013)

This means populations further from the equator and closer to the poles are more susceptible. In the Northern Hemisphere January through February are the most difficult months. The national average for sufferers of SAD is six to ten percent while in places like Vermont it is much higher, averaging between sixteen and twenty percent. (University of Vermont, 2013) (Bates College Health Center, 2013)

Minimum Daily Solar Radiation Per Month

MinSolar12mo-anim(Michigan University, 2013)

The symptoms can vary but generally they include “fatigue, weight and appetite changes, oversleeping, loss of interest in hobbies and social activities, difficulty concentrating, and low mood.” (University of Vermont, 2013) These symptoms are common for most types of depression or bipolar disorder but are unique in the case of SAD because they only happen during cycles of low sunlight. (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2013) Two other points of interest:  While people who live in higher elevations are more likely to suffer from SAD, women are four times more likely than men to suffer from SAD, but men tend to suffer more severely. (American Phycological Association, 2013) (Bates College Health Center, 2013)

The field research I conducted for this report supported many of the statistical findings  from current studies. Of the forty eight people I surveyed, approximately twenty percent reported noticing the common symptoms of SAD and experienced them during cycles of low sunlight. Approximately eighty percent, or five out of six, of those people lived at higher elevations. Curiously, in this field study two thirds of those who identified with having symptoms of SAD were men. This strongly differs from the work of PhD. Kelly Rohan, the principal director of the UVM SAD study. Rohan has conducted some of the most comprehensive studies on SAD to date, specializing in treatment methods.

I also interviewed TJ, someone I know well who has been diagnosed with SAD. TJ is a twenty-nine-year-old male from Rutland County. At nineteen he first noticed that his depression was cyclical. This isn’t uncommon. According to the Bates SAD study, “Among college students in the northeast, seasonal patterns of depression are especially common: SAD affects about 5-13% of the population…” (Bates College Health Center, 2013) The sleeping patterns of young adults may also contribute to the onset of the condition. “Oversleeping and inconsistent wake-up times causes increases in levels of melatonin during sleep, which can contribute to feelings of depression.” (Bates College Health Center, 2013)

TJ wasn’t diagnosed until he was twenty six, and only after his father, a licensed child psychologist and substance abuse therapist, strongly encouraged him for several years. “Every year it got worse. We’d lose our [TJ] until spring came around. He’d go from [the] happiest kid in the world to a guy who wouldn’t even talk to you – he never left his house.” (TJ’s Father, personal communication, 2013) TJ sought the help of a medical professional and began treatment in the autumn of 2010. Due to his personal beliefs TJ made the choice to pursue non-pharmaceutical treatments exclusively.

There are three general types of treatment for SAD: medicinal substances such as pharmaceutical antidepressants like Wellbutrin XL or the all-natural supplement tryptophan; light therapy; and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Interestingly, the most effective single treatments are light therapy and CBT, respectively, but even more effective is a combination of both. According to Rohan (2004), “These preliminary findings suggest promise for the utility of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in the treatment of SAD, particularly as an adjunct to light therapy. CBT alone, light therapy alone, and the combination of CBT and light all significantly improved symptoms across the 6-week trial.”  With this combined treatment the rate of success went up from forty seven percent to between seventy three and eighty percent, essentially doubling. (Wertlieb, 2011) The following VPR podcast featuring Kelly Rohan highlights how these therapies are used together.

Interview: Kelly Rohan, Seasonal Affective Disorder   (Wertlieb, 2011)

TJ saw no improvement from light therapy, mostly due to his lack of commitment to using a light box every day. However, he has found CBT to be highly effective. In an APA press release Rohan stated:

[CBT] foster[s] two types of skills: behavioral (doing) skills and cognitive (thinking) skills. The behavioral skills involve identifying, scheduling and doing pleasurable, engaging activities every day in the winter. Over time, these proactive behaviors are meant to counteract the down, lethargic mood and the tendency to give in to “hibernation” urges that are so common in SAD. The cognitive skills involve learning to identify and challenge negative thoughts when experiencing SAD symptoms. (American Psychological Association, 2013)

TJ said that he has created a daily exercise regimen and joined a pool league. The Bates study on SAD noted:

Aerobic exercise is proven to help alleviate SAD symptoms because it raises serotonin levels and reduces stress. Exercising outside can yield even greater benefits due to the natural light exposure. A study found that one hour of outdoor aerobic activity (even with a cloudy skies overhead) had the same benefits as 2.5 hours of light treatment indoors. Incorporating more outdoor exercise, or even taking a longer route on your walk to class can make a positive difference in your mood. (Bates College Health Center, 2013)

In an attempt to stay aware of his mood TJ has started keeping a journal. He also tries to get up early and go to bed at a reasonable hour, but struggles every year. This brief video, “How to Deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder,”  outlines a nine-step program that includes many of the tactics or behaviors TJ is using to cope with SAD.

How to Improve Your Mental Health

(Howcast, 2013)

SAD effects up to one in five Vermonters but there are treatments available that are inexpensive, highly effective and widely obtainable. Although self-diagnoses of SAD is frowned upon — “I strongly recommend against self-diagnosis and self-treatment because depression, including SAD, is a serious mental health problem” (Rohan in APA, 2013) —  recommended treatment methods can have a positive outcome and have no known negative effect. Anyone who suspects they may suffer from this disorder is fortunate that there are multiple, successful modes of therapy today. “It changed my life. I couldn’t bear to hate another winter.” (TJ, personal communication, 2013)


American Phycological Association. (2013, February 14). Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers have more than just winter blues [Press release]. Retrieved from

Bates College Health Center. (2013). Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from

Howcast. (2013). How to deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from

Mayo Clinic . (2013, November). Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from Mayo Clinic:

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2013, July 13). Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Retrieved from Mayo Clinic:

Michigan University. (2013). Solar Animation. Retrieved from University of Michigan:

Rohan, K. J. (2004, January 1). Cognitive-behavioral therapy, light therapy, and their combination in treating Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from Digital Commons @ University of Nebraska-Lincoln:

Tartakovsky, M. (2013, January 30). Are You SAD This Winter? Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from Psych Central:

University of Vermont. (2013). Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from University of Vermont:

Wertlieb, M. (2011, March 5). Interview: Kelly Rohan, Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from VPR:

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APA cite this article in text as: (Labrecque, 2014)

APA cite this article in References as: Labrecque, K. M. (2014).  SAD in Vermont. Vermont Psychology. Retrieved from

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DragonKerri Max Labrecque: I’m 42 years old and I am a college student at the Community College of Vermont for liberal studies and plan on continuing in the fascinating field of psychology. I’m interested in and have studied Chemistry, Botany, Photography, Color Theory, and the Psychology of Consciousness, to name a few. As an artist, amateur scientist, armchair philosopher and over-all “Jack of all trades,” I have come to appreciate the inner-connective patterns and systems that span across all disciplines. Although born in Massachusetts I have lived in Vermont from the age of two weeks and consider myself a Vermonter and admirer of its rugged beauty.

View Kerry’s other article about Vermont prisoners advocate, Rita McCaffrey.