Is it Seasonal Depression or another Mental Health Concern? Supporting Families in the Winter Months and Beyond

Published On: January 9th, 2023

Many of us have experienced a decline in our mood during the winter months, especially after the excitement of the holidays has passed, and our pediatric patients are no different. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression with a seasonal pattern. People with SAD typically experience mood changes and symptoms during the fall and winter months, which usually improve with the arrival of spring and summer.

Although SAD is a very common diagnosis, it is important to tell parents not to dismiss their kids’ emotions as just the “winter blues.” Encourage them to share these experiences with you as their primary care provider (PCP). There are many tools and tips that a provider can share with parents to help mitigate the symptoms of SAD, but sometimes our patients are experiencing more than that.

Screening, diagnosing, and treating mental health concerns in your primary care office can sometimes be overwhelming, especially during your already busy winter sick season, but VMAP is here to help. In addition to some of the tips in this article, you can call the VMAP Line with any questions or concerns. VMAP offers same day consultations with child psychiatrists and other licensed mental health professionals and care navigation services available to Virginia primary care providers for free!

Below are some ways you can distinguish SAD from other mental health conditions and a few suggestions on how parents can support their kids.

Signs and Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

  • Changes in mood – Children and adolescents may have changes in mood that reflect sadness, depression, or irritability.
  • Fatigue – Students may find it harder to get up for school in the morning hours or may just generally experience low energy throughout the day.
  • Changes in eating – Parents might notice that their kids are craving more comfort foods containing sugar and carbohydrates. This may result in weight gain.
  • Sensitivity to rejection – Children may have more vocal outbursts and crying. Teens may display more signs of insecurity and negative thinking.

Ways parents can support kids diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder

  • Talk openly with kids about SAD and validate their feelings
  • Encourage kids to spend more time outside during daylight hours
  • Experiment with daily light therapy until there is enough sunlight hours during the day
  • Keep healthy habits including eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly (outside when possible) and establish routines
  • Give your kids something to look forward to each day – Some ideas include a new activity, a book you read together, a special meal, time spent with friends

Encourage parents to look out for signs that may indicate something more

  • Children and teens express feeling very sad or withdrawn for two weeks or more
  • Mood swings seem severe
  • Begins showing signs of withdrawal from friendships and other relationships
  • Begins spending more time alone
  • Weight loss
  • Substance use
  • Symptoms do not diminish as the days get longer and warmer
  • Thoughts of suicide or hurting themselves

Not sure if it’s SAD or something more? Call the VMAP line and we can help! Many times, you are a parent’s first line of defense when it comes to a child’s physical AND mental health. If a parent thinks that their kids are displaying symptoms of SAD or a different mental health diagnosis unrelated to the season, it is important to encourage families to continue talking to you as their PCP about these concerns so that you can monitor and treat their kids accordingly.

Part of addressing mental health in your practice includes letting your patients and their families know that they can talk to their PCP about their mental health concerns, so speak openly with them about mental health and let them know that you are available to support them.

Don’t forget, VMAP is here to support you!

You may have an influx of mental health questions and concerns, especially after the holiday season. In addition to year-round pediatric mental health educational opportunities, VMAP offers same-day mental and behavioral health consultations and care navigation services to help with additional resources and referrals. Call VMAP now at 1-888-371-VMAP (8627), available Monday -Friday, 9-5.

Learn more about what VMAP has to offer at

Sandy Chung, MD

By Dr. Sandy Chung
VMAP Medical Director

The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice.