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Shining a Light on Seasonal Affective Disorder: Case Study

LukeNotes, Winter 2021

For as long as she could remember, Sister Lynn had dreaded the winter months. As a child growing up in Minnesota, she thought it was just because of the length of time each year that it was cold and snowy. She never understood how others in her family and neighborhood seemed to look forward to winter so they could play in the snow, go snowmobiling, or go ice fishing. It seemed like her anticipation of the long winter became worse each year, and she did not feel like herself again until spring, which always signaled the gradual lifting of a huge weight off her shoulders. She also came to wonder if it was just the start of school each year that triggered her moodiness and loss of interest in friends and other sunny day activities like riding her bicycle and playing outside. This was puzzling to her, however, because she did well in school and never struggled academically, even though it was often hard to pull herself through energetically and stay motivated day to day.

When Sister Lynn went off to college in the Mid-Atlantic region of the country, she looked forward to much less cold and snowy winters. Unfortunately, each fall/winter brought several months of the same low mood and even some feelings of despair. She was still struggling with what she simply thought of as the winter blues. Sister Lynn did, however, notice that she did not feel as bad for as long, since spring seemed to bloom much sooner than in Minnesota.

It was not until her junior year in college that she finally found her way to the campus health center and met with a doctor, who suggested she might have what is commonly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. She had, of course, heard the term before in passing, but she never made the connection with her own experience. Because Sister Lynn was raised in a family that viewed speaking about one’s internal feelings or struggles as complaining, she always tried hard to muscle through the difficult mental and physical lethargy she experienced in winter. Sadly, during college, she overrode the doctor’s suggestion that she consider treatment and decided once again to tough it out.

It was not until several years after college, as a later vocation to her religious order, that the puzzle pieces finally began to fit together. A confrere of Sister Lynn’s returned from Saint Luke Institute with a new diagnosis of Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. After successful treatment for this issue at Saint Luke, her friend and fellow community member was eager to tell Sister Lynn what she had discovered about her own type of seasonal depression. Sister Lynn found herself identifying with almost everything she heard!

Surprisingly, even to herself, given that she had resisted getting help for many years now, Sister Lynn began to feel a wave of relief at the thought of not having to tough everything out anymore. She heard from her confrere how Saint Luke staff had determined during her evaluation week that her depression was likely a specific subtype, known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, given that it almost always occurred exclusively in winter and resolved with spring. Although her friend had previously been told she had low level depression (dysthymia) and had tried an anti-depressant several times, she did not start to feel a true sense of relief until she added cognitive behavioral therapy, focusing initially on some education and rethinking about this type of depression, and the use of a light box at the encouragement of the team at Saint Luke Institute.

Sister Lynn was especially interested in hearing about the light box and the next day consulted the psychiatrist used by the community. After several follow-up appointments with the psychiatrist in which Sister Lynn thoroughly reviewed her medical and mental health history and described her own pattern of depression, the psychiatrist put her on a low dose anti-depressant and recommended the use of a light box for 30 minutes a day in the morning. After only one week, Sister Lynn experienced a noticeable improvement in her mood. The psychiatrist attributed this to both the medication and the light box but suggested that the light box was likely having the greater impact, since medication usually takes several weeks to be fully effective.

With the continued encouragement of her confrere, Sister Lynn also increased her daily exercise, started eating healthier foods, and even decided to try talk therapy. Sister Lynn continues to benefit from the use of the light box during the winter months and now feels doubly blessed: not only does she no longer need to tough out the pernicious effects of SAD on her own, but she also can share the recovery path with a friend in her very own community. Sister Lynn was also grateful to realize that had it not been for her confrere’s agreement to go to treatment at Saint Luke Institute, each of them may have continued to suffer in a parallel manner, quietly and in isolation. Now, with her burden lifted, they can continue to share recovery notes and strategies, and together let a little more light shine into their own and each other’s lives.

For confidentiality, reasons, names, identifying data, and other details of treatment have been altered.