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Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Taken Seriously?

By Nina Cloven, MHA

Mental health conditions have long been stigmatized and under-resourced in the United States health system. Though promising innovations in the healthcare industry and shifting societal norms are transforming mental healthcare in the U.S., there are still some mental health conditions that are more misunderstood than others. Primary care plays a crucial role in mental healthcare delivery, more than ever before due to the pandemic triggering a global 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is “a type of depression characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern” according to the National Institute of Health (NIH), and accounts for 10% of all depression cases. Although approximately 10 million Americans suffer from SAD, it is still a seemingly poorly understood condition. 

With such little information available on SAD, I decided to sit down with Nicole Thalheimer, PsyD from Crossover Health to share her clinical expertise on the subject and share advice for primary care providers who treat patients suffering from SAD.

Dr. Nicole Thalheimer is a licensed Clinical Psychologist at Crossover Health, working on the Central Virtual Care Team for Crossover’s integrated primary care model. Prior to working at Crossover, Dr. Thalheimer worked in private practice and community mental health settings, and she specializes in Gender and LGBTQIA+ mental health care.

What is your clinical understanding of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

“I like to describe depression as an umbrella, because there are a lot of different diagnoses that fall under depression, as well as different presentations of depression. Symptoms don’t necessarily look the same for everyone”

“Seasonal Affective Disorder can be particularly difficult to diagnose because you have to monitor patterns of symptoms over several years. And things such as changes to a patient’s work or school, or even the holiday season that comes every year, can lead to increased depressive symptoms, but not necessarily SAD.”

“The pandemic led to an increase in mental health concerns across the board, so it would make a lot of sense if the prevalence of SAD was increasing as well.”

Do you think that seasonal affective disorder is not taken as seriously as other forms of depression?

“I think that is a fair observation, because it does remit every year when the weather grows warmer. Just because something external like the changing of a season is tied to routine periods of depression doesn’t mean it should not be researched. Data and research are necessary to furthering our ability to provide care, and I think mental health research in general deserves a lot more attention and funding”

What advice would you give to primary care providers who may have patients who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder?

“SAD exists, it is prevalent, and it is not researched enough, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real and that many folks don’t struggle with the condition.” 

“Though SAD is a condition that gets better when the weather changes, it is important to take it as seriously [as other forms of depression]. There exists a lot of nuance in mental health conditions such as SAD, so that is why I believe collaboration between mental health and primary care providers is crucial, and that is what I love about Crossover Health’s integrated behavioral health model.”

If you or a loved one is suffering with symptoms of depression, or if you would like more information about depression or seasonal affective disorder, visit this resource page.

Nina Cloven, MHA is Elation’s Manager of Primary Care Advancement. She received her MHA from The John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and BS in Public Health from Texas A&M University.