Science Cafe: Seasonal Affective Disorder is more than just the winter blues

Monitor staff
Tuesday, February 21, 2017

It can be hard to remember after a gorgeous winter weekend like we just had, but when daylight fades and temperatures drop every winter, it can have a real effect on some people’s well-being.

The official term for such depression is Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, and like many psychological disorders it can be complicated to detect and treat – which doesn’t mean it’s not significant.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about it. A lot of people think it’s just the winter blues,” said Meghan Butcher, a psychology intern at Concord Hospital Family Healing.

Butcher will be one of three panelists available to answer our questions about SAD at Science Cafe Concord tonight, starting at 6 upstairs in The Draft Sports Bar, 67 S. Main St. As usual I’ll be the moderator, and apparently I need to listen carefully because my initial description of the event described the topic as “The Winter Blues.” Oops.

The misnomer is understandable in a way, because many of us feel a little bummed when it gets dark as we’re heading to work, and it’s dark again as we’re heading home. That’s not what Science Cafe will be discussing, however: SAD is more than that.

“It’s quite common for people to report feeling a little sadder in the winter. Whether it meets the criteria of SAD depends on a lot of other factors,” Butcher said.

Those factors can include changes in sleep patterns, social withdrawal, and, I was surprised to learn from the National Institute of Mental Health, “craving for carbohydrates.” It is especially worrisome as a trigger for more serious disabilities, which is why it is worth our attention.

For a hard-science fan like me, psychological disorders are unsettling.

They tend to be measured by subjective factors, often as reported by the subject, rather than objective measurements based on chemistry or physics that get reported by a machine.

There is some objective measurement with SAD, such as levels of the hormones seratonin and melatonin, but the human psyche is way too complicated to be reduced to a few numbers. So subjective reports and observation remains our best window.

This makes it easy to overlook or dismiss psychological problems – call this the “snap out of it!” response – and also to exaggerate or misunderstand them. They’re hard to pin down, hard to understand, hard to change.

Which is a good reason to discuss the topic at Science Cafe.

Speaking of which, as of this spring, Science Cafe New Hampshire will have been running for six years, holding free monthly science and technology discussions in Concord, then in Nashua, and since 2015, in both Concord and Nashua.

That’s 62 sessions so far, often drawing overflow crowds, which means more than 2,500 people have come out on midweek evenings to enjoy beer, pub food and two hours of informed discussion about topics ranging from 3-D printing to Lyme disease to bitcoin to gene editing.

If I may brag for a moment, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better science outreach program in New England that isn’t funded by a university or institution. So if you despair about society’s appetite for scientific inquiry, attend one of our cafes and it will raise your spirits (check sciencecafenh.org for details).

Or maybe you want to help keep this group going. If so, tap me on the shoulder tomorrow and we’ll talk.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)