How Schools Can Support Students with Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Conversation with Amanda Boquist and Natalie Fikac

Authors: Amanda Boquist, MA (she/her) and Natalie Fikac, Ed.D. (she/her)


Although many folks associate the fall season with holidays and joyful gatherings, it’s important to remember that up to 16 million Americans struggle with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) each year— with an additional 10 to 20% facing more mild symptoms. 


Students with seasonal depression can end up feeling very isolated and misunderstood, especially since they’re also dealing with final assignments before winter break. 


We recently chatted with two experienced team members at the South Southwest Mental Health Technology Transfer Center (MHTTC), which is part of the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health (TIEMH). Senior Administrative Program Coordinators Amanda Boquist and Natalie Fikac shared what they know about seasonal depression and how to support students.



YouTube thumbnail with headshots of Amanda Boquist and Natalie Fikac in front of MHTTC branded background.




Addressing seasonal affective disorder in schools with Amanda Boquist and Natalie Fikac 

What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD) aka seasonal depression?


Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that typically happens during specific seasons of the year, most frequently during fall and winter.

The shorter days and less sunlight may create a chemical change in our brain, affecting serotonin and melatonin levels. More serotonin is developed during days with high sunlight, which stirs up happy feelings. However, less daylight means we create more melatonin, which causes sleepiness and sadness. 


Seasonal depression also affects some environments and populations disproportionately, including: 

  • Teenage girls, especially those living with trauma or mental health symptoms 

  • Young adults, which can be due to their increased chance of having deregulated sleep and hormonal changes 

  • Those with a history of mental health issues, such as depression and bipolar mood disorder 

  • People who have other chronic medical conditions 

  • People with low levels of vitamin D 

  • People in areas closer to the equator or with less sunlight exposure 


What are key signs that a student might be struggling with seasonal depression? 



You might notice students experiencing a few of the following symptoms: 

  • Mood changes: SAD can cause students to feel sad, hopeless, or worthless. They also might become more irritable and prone to crying. 

  • Negative thinking: A person can become more self-critical or sensitive to criticism. Students may complain a lot, shift blame to others, or raise problems more often than usual. 

  • Lack of enjoyment: Students with SAD may lose interest in things they’d normally enjoy, such as hanging out with their friends or attending social activities/school organizations. 

  • Low energy: Though someone might’ve been energetic earlier in the year, in the fall they’re always tired or lack the motivation to do things. To these students, any small assignment or task can seem like a huge effort. 

  • Sleep pattern changes: Students might sleep much more than usual. They could find it hard to get up for school on time, stay awake in class, or complete work in the mornings. 

  • Irregular eating habits: Seasonal depression might increase cravings for simple carbohydrates (think comfort foods or sweets) and the tendency to overeat. Some students may gain weight during the winter months. 

  • Trouble concentrating: Similar to other types of depression, SAD can make it hard to focus. This lack of concentration could negatively affect students’ schoolwork and grades.

As the season changes and the days get longer, you’ll start seeing most students revert to their usual behaviors from before the fall season.


Have you noticed any misconceptions about this disorder?



One of the misconceptions we’ve heard is that seasonal depression only affects people living in really overcast climates— primarily the northeast or the Midwest where there are intense winters. We live in Texas and support folks in the south-southwest region where that type of weather doesn’t typically last very long. The fact is that anybody can experience seasonal depression, regardless of where they live. 


Another common misconception is that light therapy is the only effective treatment. Multiple treatments out there can make a meaningful impact, including cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, vitamin D supplements, or antidepressants (for more severe cases). 


While light therapy can be helpful, we should be mindful that not everyone will respond well to it. For example, light therapy can potentially induce mania in people who’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. 


What initial steps should schools consider to support students who are struggling with SAD?



Be prepared 
If you notice that students’ needs are changing during certain times of the year, ensure there’s a plan in place to address them. Before the school year begins, educators and staff can establish social-emotional learning support, optimize their guidance curriculum, and brainstorm new strategies to help students. 


Equip school staff 
It’s important to provide staff with comprehensive training about different mental health conditions and practical toolkits. You should also think about what resources are in place to help adult employees feel supported. Does the staff lounge feel relaxing and inviting? Are they encouraged to take breaks for short walks or stretching? 


Create healing spaces 
Try to set up intentional areas with plenty of natural light, opportunities for physical activity, or nourishing snacks (e.g. foods with omega-3 fatty acids or folic acid). What could this look like? Your school could open more windows throughout the building, establish a few “recharge” spots with snacks, or create a room where students can reset with yoga and mindfulness meditations.


Promote movement 
Getting up and moving can help induce a more positive mood. The Mayo Clinic recommends adding 30 minutes of movement every day during the fall. Schools could add more movement by adjusting the classroom layout, increasing recess/gym time, or incorporating fun exercises between lessons. 


Do you have advice for mental health providers who are having trouble implementing change at their schools?



Change begins with recognizing that there’s a clear need. Given that data drives decisions, schools should take a closer look at key numbers (e.g. attendance data, tardiness data, discipline data, failure rates, etc.) and patterns that could tie back to certain seasons. 


For example, you could use data to show that there’s a 10% increase in school tardies between October and January. Once you paint a picture for your school district’s decision-makers, they’ll be more likely to listen to your suggestions and start implementing new plans. 


What tips do you have for students dealing with seasonal depression in various regions?



We recommend parents, caregivers, and professional educators try the following tactics to help increase a student’s resilience to SAD: 

Spend time outdoors 
Being out in the sun helps ease the severity of seasonal depression, even if the weather is chilly. Research shows that spending time in nature leads to improved mood, cognition, and health


Connect with others 
Maintaining social relationships has a positive impact on your mental and physical well-being. You could encourage students to work in groups or organize more open class discussions. Here’s a resource for parents with teens who tend to withdraw in their room during the cold weather. 


Lean into aromatherapy 
Using essential oils alongside other treatments may help boost your mood and relieve stress. Try placing flowers in classrooms, spraying soothing air fresheners around campus, or arranging an activity with students to find their favorite fragrances (while keeping everything hypoallergenic). 


Practice journaling 
Students might not always feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with staff, which is why keeping a journal can make a huge difference. Give students prompts that’ll help them process their feelings, recognize things they’re grateful for, or explore their strengths. 


Change your surroundings 
Sometimes students lose energy due to the monotony of their everyday routines, which can feel amplified during winter. If possible, plan for special days when students visit a different area of the school during class (such as the library). 


Where can people learn more about how to support youth living with seasonal mental health challenges?



Surprisingly, there's not a lot of information out there about how to support students and navigate the school system, but here are a few helpful options:


New England MHTTC SAD Toolkit: This is a collaborative childhood trauma resource that addresses seasonal affective disorder and how to respond in the classroom. 


Child Mind Institute: The Child Mind Institute is an independent nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children struggling with mental health and learning disorders. They offer educational resources that help families and schools better support youth. 


Stay in touch for more insights 

We hope this helped shed some light on seasonal affective disorder among students. If you’re interested in joining the “Mindful Self-Compassion for Educators” sessions starting January 2024, you can learn more here


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About the authors

Amanda Boquist, M.A. (she/her) received her Master’s in Forensic Psychology from Adelphi University in New York. She has over 15 years of experience working in clinical settings and most recently in schools and districts, supporting school counselors across systems. Amanda is a Senior Administrative Program Coordinator with the South Southwest MHTTC providing training and technical assistance in the school mental health space.


Dr. Natalie Fikac (she/her) received a Master's in Education for School Counseling and School Administration from Sam Houston State University and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Lamar University. Her experience began over 27 years ago as an elementary school teacher, reading interventionist, professional school counselor, campus administrator, and district-level administrator. Natalie is a Senior Administrative Program Coordinator with the South Southwest MHTTC supporting state education agencies and schools to shape comprehensive school mental health systems.



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