For this project, I was assigned seasonal depression...or as it's called in the mental health world, seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Though my other topics would've been sillier or given me a wider range to work with, I enjoyed the challenge. In addition, mental health has always been an area of interest for me.
My wheels began turning right away. I looked up information on SAD so I could begin "observing". Though, unfortunately it's difficult to observe with mental health matters. You can look for symptoms, but they're often hard to see, and a lot of other factors could be an influence. Instead, I made little notes when people spoke negatively about the weather. It was mostly about the cold, or it being dark extremely early. Here's an example: On Murmur, a new app for university students, someone posted this (it posted twice because the app still has a lot of glitches):
This was not super helpful. So, I also created a survey to see if I could get some data that way. I made a free account on Survey Monkey and made a 10 question survey. I asked questions like, "Have you ever thought yourself to have seasonal depression/winter blues?" and asked people how frequently they felt various symptoms. I had more questions, but 10 was the limit for a free account. I posted it to my Floor 6 Facebook Group and to my Facebook Wall, asking people to take it. I guessed maybe 20-30 people would fill it out... But in just 16 hours, I already had 81 responses.
Here's the link if you want to check it out!
I'll go over the data in the "Dig Deeper" portion of the blog.
I received an email from Active Minds, the mental health group on campus, notifying me about a meeting Wednesday night. I signed up to be on the email list at the beginning of the year, and never went to a meeting. But, I figured this would be a great interview opportunity. The meeting was on slam poetry. A few students from the U Slam group came and read their competitive poems to us. It was quite depressing, but beautiful.
I paid attention to who seemed to be leading the meeting, and spoke to her when it was over. She ended up being the president of Active Minds. As with all of the interviews, I'm not going to use names.
When asked about seasonal depression, she said, "I think it kind of affects a lot of people in different ways and to different degrees. I'm not super strongly influenced by it, but just walking over today, the fact that it was dark at 5:15 put me in a bad mood."
She spoke of her father, who takes vitamin D supplements to help his seasonal depression. Her roommate is going to Norway and has to take vitamin D supplements as well. I asked her what she thinks could influence seasonal depression, other than the chemical aspects. She said, "In winter you don't get that freedom to do what you want when you want. I can see, in the winter, isolation is kind of encouraged almost because there's a lot less things to do...you don't get to kind of get outside and be social."
Boynton Health Services
I was originally thinking of interviewing my psychology professor, but I couldn't make it to his office hour. I decided a mental health professional would be an "expert", but I had no clue how to go about getting an interview with one. I went to Boynton Health Services and asked the front desk. I was directed to the fourth floor, which housed the Mental Health Counseling wing. I asked the receptionist there, and she gave me a number to call. Apparently there's a particular man who handles interviews about mental health.
I started the phone interview by saying "Tell me about any experience you've had with seasonal affective disorder." I knew we were supposed to be as vague as possible, and let the interviewee say whatever comes to their mind.
This made him uneasy, however. He wanted me to be specific and he was asking me questions to get to the core of what I was asking. I encouraged him to say anything, but this led nowhere. Finally, he said, "Well, it gets diagnosed a lot. And some people self-diagnose." Then there was silence, which he broke with asking about my project. He was set on heading in a certain direction with his answers. I began jumping into my "dig deeper" questions right away.
I asked, "Do you think very many people go untreated?" He thought it was a possibility, but there is no data to measure it. I asked if the treatments have been effective. He said, "Yes and no, it's hard to say. A lot of times we know someone has SAD because the treatments work." Apparently phototherapy is the most common treatment. He believes that for some it's not a serious issue. They come in feeling a little depressed, receive phototherapy, and they're fine. For others, it's very serious...to the point of being suicidal. I asked a few more questions, but I didn't get any answers. He said "It depends" or "That's out of my league."
Interview Three (and Four!)
For the last interview, I just wanted to talk to a random student like myself. I asked my floor if anyone would be okay with being interviewed. One guy that I kind of knew agreed to it. He told me that he didn't realize he might have seasonal depression until I mentioned it. He said in the summer, he felt really good about going to the University of Minnesota. But, when Stanford beat the Oregon Ducks, he realized that the students there had "everything" and suddenly felt inferior. He suddenly felt more anxious about his future and wish he could have security, and a girlfriend. Cue the awkward laughter. He's from Texas, so he's already worn down by the cold Minnesota weather. He's not excited when people say, "Hey, this is warm for winter." He wants a way to feel less lonely and a sense of progress. He feels like the SAD lamps that give off bright light are too artificial; he'd rather have sun-like warmth. Maybe a sun hanging, or a warm pillow he could hug.
I drew a sun on the page randomly, and another guy looked over my shoulder. "Oh, sorry," he said. "I just saw a sun and it made me happy." This kind of summed everything up. I asked him if he had seasonal depression. He didn't really know, but he said he did feel sadder in the winter. He said he could stand it for maybe a month, because he gets excited about Christmas and the snow. But then, it gets to be too much and there's nothing to look forward to.
I don't want to say much about this, but I have experienced the effects of seasonal depression too...even this weekend. I felt down, slept too long and felt like isolating myself. I found the most helpful thing was having something positive about winter to look forward too. My roommate forced me to get up and we went shopping. I bought things that got me excited about Christmas. It was weird how much happier I felt having a snowman tissue box and a bag of peppermint bark squares.
The survey got 92 responses.
About 40% of the people who answered have believed themselves to have had seasonal depression or winter blues. 18% weren't sure. Yet, only 3 people had been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder. About 10% of the people who took the survey have received some sort of SAD treatment.
That's pretty crazy. That means a lot of people who feel depressed in the winter aren't getting treated for it.
84% of people believe it's at least somewhat true that most people feel less happy in the winter. About 91% of people think it's at least somewhat true that seasonal depression is a serious issue that should be discussed and addressed more often. If a product helping seasonal depression were to be popularized, this might make people talk about it more and take it more seriously.
Moving ahead, I think there's a few directions to go with this project. I could...
a.) Find a way to create a product that is desirable and cures the chemical part of SAD.
b.) Find ways to let people experience aspects of summer in the winter.
c.) Find a way for people to be excited about winter after Christmas.
Or some combination of all of those..
People need something to look forward to that makes them feel happier in the winter because a lot of people get winter blues.
"About 40% of the people who answered have believed themselves to have had seasonal depression or winter blues."
"After Christmas there's nothing to look forward to."
"He wants to feel less lonely and a sense of progress in winter."