Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is recognized as a type of depression that can take hold in the fall and winter months. SAD may not get enough attention over the winter season, but plenty of Americans are affected by it, whether officially or unofficially diagnosed. 

Recent CivicScience polling finds that 37% of U.S. adult respondents who answered said they or someone in their household experiences Seasonal Affective Disorder (n=2,545). That’s up from 34% last year at this time. Despite being a disorder that can cause a range of negative effects that interfere with daily life, not even one-third of households with SAD symptoms have been officially diagnosed. That said, diagnoses appear to have increased a percentage point from last year.

The cost of care and/or health insurance coverage may play a role in likelihood to seek treatment. While 60% of households with individuals who have been officially diagnosed have health insurance coverage through an employer, that’s the case for only 45% of those who believe they have SAD but have not received a diagnosis. In contrast, undiagnosed respondents are twice as likely to carry Medicare, Medicaid, or another type of government-assisted health insurance plan. 

Shining Light on SAD Treatments

There are both medical treatments and non-medical or lifestyle changes recommended for managing SAD. Among affected households, 30% report they do nothing to treat it. The good news is this has fallen three percentage points from February 2022, suggesting more people affected by SAD are taking measures to manage it.

Looking at five common ways to treat SAD, exercise appears to be the most popular method, followed by taking vitamin supplements. These results aren’t too surprising, given that the majority of people reporting SAD are undiagnosed. However, more people this year say they or someone in their household are taking medications to treat SAD, while fewer are using light therapy such as light boxes. The least popular approach is therapy/counseling, but that also saw a slight bump from 2022.

Is SAD the Norm for Young Adults?

Winter may be the harshest for young adults. The data distinctly show respondents who say they or someone in their household has SAD – diagnosed or undiagnosed – are more likely to be young. An overwhelming 65% of those aged 18-24 who answered say they (or a household member) experience SAD and the same goes for 47% of those aged 25-34. That’s compared to 36% of people aged 35-54 and just 24% of those aged 55 and older.

In each instance, around one-quarter to one-third of those reporting SAD have received an official diagnosis, with Gen Z adults (18-24) the most likely to have one.

Are young people actually more likely than older adults to experience SAD? Or is it that younger adults are more likely to recognize mental health symptoms and seek treatment? It could be a combination of both. First, overall well-being in young adults averages far below the national average year-round, as measured by the CivicScience Well-Being Index which aggregates self-reported feelings of sadness, stress, and other emotions. Well-being among 18- to 24-year-olds began declining last fall and continued to slide.

Past CivicScience studies also show adults under 35 are more proactive about utilizing the healthcare system for mental health concerns; they were much more likely than older adults to seek mental health treatment over the course of the pandemic.

Age clearly plays an important role when it comes to reporting SAD and seeking help. The data also show:

  • Region isn’t a big factor. Interestingly, while those living in the Midwest are the most likely to say they have SAD (39%), between 36% and 37% of those living in all other continental U.S. regions experience SAD.
  • But, sunlight is key. It’s thought that SAD is related to a lack of sunlight in the winter months and a disruption to circadian rhythms. Recent poll data find nearly 2-in-5 U.S. adults say they do not get enough sunshine throughout the year. Among these sunshine-deprived folks, 49% report they experience SAD, compared to only 25% of those who feel they get a healthy amount of the sun’s rays.
  • Overall health correlates. People with SAD are more than twice as likely to report they are unhealthy as those without SAD when asked to rate their overall health (37% versus 17%). They also report lower levels of emotional well-being compared to the general population.

Ultimately, the key takeaway is adults under age 35, especially Gen Z adults, are much more likely to report SAD and seek treatment. Even so, the majority of people affected by SAD do not have an official diagnosis and are likely to self-treat with lifestyle changes, such as exercise and supplements, if they do at all. Health insurance coverage may also play a role in whether or not someone seeks an official diagnosis and the types of treatments they use.

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