Winter inevitably brings with it the possibility of physical dangers due to weather, such as those related to perilous roads and bridges as seen around the nation within the past months, especially on the East coast. However, the mental dangers prevalent in the winter months should not be taken lightly.
Psychological changes that occur within the winter months might still be affecting students, despite the weather’s recent lean towards spring. With the pressures of school, work and other commitments, students are at times forced to sacrifice their health, physically and mentally, to meet the grade.
Dr. Renee Michalski, senior lecturer in the psychology and neuroscience department, received her Ph.D. in neuroscience from Baylor in 2006 and has researched self-administered assessment instruments for post-traumatic stress disorders. She explains the psychological process of stress disorders that could occur to students during winter months. Michalski teaches entry-level psychology classes as well as upper level courses, such as Abnormal Psychology, Lifespan Human Development and Forensic Psychology.
Q: As a professor, do you find that students lose momentum near the end of the spring semester, midway or near the beginning?
A: What I notice, from my perspective as a professor, is that in general students’ momentum at the beginning of the semester is low — of any semester. Then it picks up towards the end because that’s when you’re getting close to the final result for the semester – their grade. I notice that as a generality.
Q: With the influx of winter weather within the past months nationwide, what are the mental effects of this on students? Is Season Affective Disorder, the depression associated with late autumn and winter, at play?
A: It could be because Seasonal Affective Disorder is tied to day length. So, you not only see it when in the winter and days are shorter, but you might also see it if you change latitude and go some place where the days are shorter, where there’s not as much sunlight in a day. It’s because some of the production of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, is tied to daylight hours. Serotonin drops when the number of daylight hours drops. Serotonin is your “feel OK” chemical. When you don’t have it, you either get anxious or you get depressed.
Q: So, how do you see weather affecting students’ study patterns as the semester progresses? Will it affect them in a negative or positive way?
I have mixed opinions because, for someone to be diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, then the changes in their mood have to be tied to the seasons and the day length. I think there are many, many more students who might just have generalized depression. That’s not SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder. The fact that it’s gloomy outside versus, you know, sunny outside might just pick up an ordinary person’s mood – for it to be sunny. But then you also have things come into play – that they would rather be outside doing things that aren’t school. You know, it might be easier to stay inside and study when the weather’s bad and you don’t have an excuse for going out and you’re not looking forward to spring break.
Age is also a strong predictor of seasonality, with younger persons at higher risk for winter-depressive episodes.
In order to diagnose it, if you go to go to a clinician, then they’re going to look at the past two years of your life. You have to have had two major depressive episodes that occurred during short-day length period of time and not at other times.
Q: What qualifies a major depressive episode?
A: A major depressive order means that you feel sad or you’re not doing anything, plus you have some of these other things – change in eating, change in sleep, change in activity, you feel tired, problems with thinking, problems with studying, problems with making decisions.
That’s the hard part about depression is that, when students get depressed, then not only are they not doing well in their classes, but if they are really having a major depressive episode, they have trouble making the decision about what to do. Should I go see the professor and try harder, even though I don’t feel like it? Should I go to a therapist? Should I change my major? Should I drop the class? You know, they have trouble getting themselves out of the hole. They have negative feelings and negative symptoms, and they can’t make a decision.
Q: In relation to depression in general, do you believe it starts with an occurrence that happens that affects the person or does it begin with a chemical imbalance?
A: There are several theories. Aaron Beck’s theory is that something happens that’s negative, and that causes you to start playing these negative tapes in your head. It could be that for whatever reason, the first time you take a class, you don’t do well. Then, you have a bias when you think about something. If you don’t do well on the first test, then you think, ‘See I didn’t do very well. I knew I wasn’t going to. I’m stupid. I’ll probably fail the next test. I’ll probably fail,’ and then quit trying. I buy into that you might’ve had something really negative that caused you to be depressed and then that imbalance lingered on.
On the other hand, you might have a biological predisposition to have a little bit low serotonin anyway – something different about the receptors, something different about how brain areas are wired together that predisposes you no matter what is going on in your life.
Q: What is some advice you would give to students facing this issue?
A: Just some general things we know help depression is exercise. We’ve got the SLC, if it’s too bad to go outside, which offers you a lot of different things. Have a good support group. Talk to your friends. Get enough sleep when you get really tired. Memories are consolidated during dream periods. For somebody that knows that they have it, one non-medicine treatment is a light box. You buy lights that put out a specific wavelength, and you sit in front of them for a prescribed number of hours a day – a couple hours a day. That increases your serotonin production.
Our counseling center has a really good deal. If they went out in the community for initial assessment, that office visit might cost $125 to $175. But they can go over here. It’s very inexpensive. They’re entitled to a certain number of sessions – maybe seven or eight sessions. So, you could get started there.
Use your professors as resources. If you’re not doing well in a class, then go in and talk to them. I just think there’s so much pressure put on students to make good grades. Students sitting in the class, when they start in on a class, they start out with the hope and the expectation that they’re going to make an A, but not making an A is not the end of the world. People start college and declare a certain major, and it’s not the end of the world to change your major.
Know that if you do have Seasonal Affective Disorder or if you do have a major depressive disorder, that’s a disorder and it’s an imbalance of brain chemicals. You need to do something. You need to get some help.