Around March, some of us take a kick at the snow mounded on the curb and wonder if spring is finally going to drop by. The sun sets before we go home, and the cold coops us up except for runs to the grocery store. All of this amounts to something known informally as the winter blues, because those wintry days and dead trees can put us in a glum mood. But in the 1980s, research at the National Institutes of Mental Health led to recognition of a form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (shortened, of course, to SAD). Seasonal affective disorder was categorized under major depression to signify depression with a yearly recurrence, a condition far more debilitating than your average “winter blues.” Mention of SAD in research and books peaked in the 1990s, and today SAD is considered a diagnosable (and insurable) disorder. Treatment ranges from psychotherapy to antidepressants to light therapy — large boxes filled with lightbulbs that look like tanning beds for your face.
However, a recent study questions the existence of seasonal depression entirely. Each year, the Centers for Disease Control conducts a large cross-sectional study of the US population. A group of researchers realized they could use the CDC results independently to investigate how much depression changes by season. The 2006 version of the CDC study included a set of questions typically used to screen for depression. By analyzing the answers gathered from 34,000 adults over the course of the year, the researchers might detect flareups of seasonal affective disorder. They might see wintertime surges in depression. “To be honest, we initially did not question the [SAD] diagnosis,” writes investigator Dr. Steven LoBello, the goal being “to determine the actual extent to which depression changes with the seasons.”