SAD News To Cheer Up Teachers

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More than 2,000 years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates suspected that the seasons of the year had an influence on people's physical well-being. And for decades, many people knew that they just didn't feel right during winter, although they didn't know why.

It wasn't until the 1980's that mental health experts recognized the condition that has come to be called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Researchers have discovered that the winter months, with their overcast days, weak sunlight, and shorter daylight hours, bring on a form of depression that may affect up to 20 percent of the American population each year.

SAD is characterized by a variety of symptoms, including excessive sleeping, social withdrawal, negative selfimage, irritability, fatigue, and weight gain due to an increased consumption of carbohydrates.

Teachers are likely to be affected by SAD for two reasons, says Norman Rosenthal, director of light therapy studies at the National Institute of Mental Health and one of the foremost experts on the condition. The first pertains to age: SAD is most common among women in their 20's to mid-40's, a range into which many teachers fall. Also, teachers are often subjected to inadequate light levels in classrooms that have either glazed windows or no windows at all.

Robert McGrath, an assistant professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickenson University, has treated teachers affected by SAD. One teacher he counseled was concerned she might be harboring negative feelings about teaching, because even though she loved her job, she would become depressed every fall and winter.

In fact, says McGrath, school wasn't to blame. The teacher was suffering from SAD, and her depression was lifted by the standard treatment: sitting in front of a special box that produces bright, full-spectrum light.

This simple treatment produces remission of SAD in about 80 percent of patients. (Others may be successfully treated with standard antidepressant drugs.) For some patients, 30 minutes each morning in front of the light box is sufficient. More severe cases might require as much as two hours of daily exposure. The lights range from 2,500 to 10,000 lux (a standard unit of light intensity). The intensity of the sun about 20 minutes after sunrise is equivalent to 10,000 lux, while the midday summer sun reaches about 100,000 lux. The dull, yellowish light typically found in classrooms is only about 500 lux.

Short of formal light therapy, teachers can feel better during the fall and winter simply by exposing themselves to more light, says Rosenthal. This might mean going for a walk at lunchtime instead of staying in a dim faculty lounge, or bringing extra lights into the classroom. The intensity of the light is critical, he adds, and the correct amount can only be produced indoors by special light fixtures similar to those used to grow plants.

For more information about SAD, teachers may want to consult Rosenthal's new book, Seasons of the Mind: Why You Get the Winter Blues and What You Can Do About It (Bantam Books, 1989). It includes a resource section listing support groups, practitioners throughout the country who treat the disorder, companies that manufacture treatment lights, and dietary advice. Also, the National Institute of Mental Health fields questions through the Seasonal Studies Program. Call (202) 496-0500.

Vol. 01, Issue 03, Page 1-24

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