Seasonal Affective Disorder a serious challenge for some international students

by | Feb 3, 2017 | Life

Ieva Lucs
Life Reporter

If you’re finding you’d rather spend your nights in rather than going out, you’re not

alone: this time of year is typically hard for students, but for some the winter blues can be a serious downer.

Seasonal affective disorder, with the appropriate acronym of SAD, affects up to 15 per cent of Ontarians (3 per cent of whom have a severe case), according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. The affects range from craving sweets or carbs, oversleeping, hypersensitivity and irritation in social situations, and feelings of depression and anxiety.

Some Canadians feel used to winter and treat this time of year as “just the way it is.” But if you’re one of Humber’s 3,800 full-time international students this may be the first time you’ve ever experienced the freezing grey days of the north.

Maria Almendariz, 18, is a business marketing student at Humber College who arrived from Quito, Ecuador last fall. She had a tough time adjusting to the weather, and learned quickly that staying in at night by herself was a bad idea for her mental wellbeing.

“In the beginning I slept a lot. There was so much darkness. I started wishing I was home. I was thinking, ‘what would I be doing if I was back in my country?’”

Almendariz was proactive and found people like her, new to Canada. She encouraged them to get out at night, for their own good and hers.

“If you don’t keep yourself busy, it’s hard socially and mentally.”

There were a few hiccups however. Since it was so cold, Almendariz and her friends couldn’t go outside, so they would inevitably end up at a restaurant. She had one starchy week where she ate pizza for five straight days.

“It was so bad. Never again,” Almendariz vowed.

She still finds it hard to sleep because the days often pass without a glimpse of the sun.

“In Ecuador, the sun is up at 6 a.m. and sets between 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. every day. Here I don’t feel the changing in the day,” said Almendariz.

Dr. Robert Levitan is the Cameron Wilson Chair in Depression Research, and senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto where he has does extensive research on SAD. His studies show that women make up 80 per cent of seasonal depression sufferers.

“Seasonality might have something to do with preparing a young woman for the potential of getting pregnant during that tough fall-winter period,” said Levitan. “That’s when, historically at least, there may have been a real challenge in terms of energy conservation. Not so much in modern society, of course.”

But whether someone like Almendariz is more susceptible to SAD because she went from a hot climate to a cold one, Levitan says seasonal depression can hit anyone, even if they’ve lived in Canada their whole life.

“The rate of SAD depends more on where you’re going to than where you’re coming from. Being exposed early on to the winter doesn’t help us that much in terms of adapting to it. We’re equally at risk as someone coming from the south,” said Levitan.

However, Almendariz did have the right idea when she forced herself to go out and be social in the dark winter months. Levitan said the rate of SAD is far lower in places that celebrate and accept the winter, like the Canadian Prairies and Quebec. Even in Ontario, rates of SAD are lower in the north of the province than in the south.

“In the more rural areas people are just more used to the winter, they expect it, and it becomes part of their routine, whereas, here it’s just a bothersome thing. There’s nothing about it that’s appealing and we don’t really make any effort to have a culture around it. If you think of Quebec City, for example, they have the Winter Carnival, lots of skiing and winter sports,” said Levitan.

One of the ways Levitan treats seasonal depression is to expose the sufferer to specially filtered ultra violet light for several minutes a day. The affect on someone’s mood can be quite a dramatic change, however Levitan warns people not to self-treat or self-diagnose.

“Using light therapy can be dangerous, so we recommend that people don’t just use their own light units or buy them without it being for seasonal depression.”

Humber students who think they have symptoms of seasonal depression can go to the Health and Wellness Centre (CK AT LAKESHORE) and make an appointment with a doctor.

If you suffer from a more mild form of winter blues Leanne Henwood-Adam, the fitness coordinator and facility manager for Humber’s recreation centre, has some tips on how to shake the sunshine back into your body:


“Simply getting up and moving will make a huge difference. In the winter we want to be inside. Students are sitting at desks and studying. Go for a long walk, and try to get sunshine. Anything where you can get your body moving. If you don’t like the gym or don’t want to go outside, do stair climbs in a building in rez. Do lunges, squats, push ups and sit ups in your room. Stand up in front of your desk chair and do push ups off your desk. Getting your blood flowing is the most important thing.”

Eat well.

“Find food that isn’t processed and doesn’t have a ton of ingredients if possible. Skinless grilled chicken versus fried chicken. Roast potatoes versus French fries. The shorter the ingredient list, the better. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a treat! Live by the 80/20 rule. Eighty per cent of the time be active and eat healthy. Twenty per cent of the time live life and have fun. If you are too strict with yourself all the time, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”

Use Humber’s Resources

“The gym is free. Every student has access to the facility. There’s such a wide variety of fitness classes, go to one of them! Yoga, step up, boot camp. Come out and have fun. Try it out. Access it. There is something for everybody.

And most importantly, if you’re suffering, contact somebody. Reach out and talk to our counselors and doctors.”

Humber counselors:

Fitness Centre FAQ

North Campus Fitness Class Schedule


Lakeshore Campus Fitness Class Schedule