North·In Depth

Is seasonal affective disorder real? The truth is complicated

Growing questions about seasonal affective disorder (SAD) reveal issues at the heart of psychiatry.

Growing questions about seasonal affective disorder (SAD) reveal issues at the heart of psychiatry

Elder Roy Cockney in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., at night, where the sun sets on the shores of the Arctic Ocean on Nov. 28 at two in the afternoon. It doesn't rise again for 46 days. (Eriel Lugt/TukTV)

Throughout this piece, you will have the opportunity to answer questions from the Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire (SPAQ), a tool used by psychiatrists to screen for SAD that has been the subject of recent criticism.

Answer each question, thinking about the past three to five years. At the end, you will have a chance to see how you could be assessed.

In Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., the sun sets on the shores of the Arctic Ocean on Nov. 28 at two in the afternoon. It doesn't rise again for 46 days.

If you were looking for the epicentre of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — a diagnosis based on the principle that light deficiency can cause seasonal episodes of depression — you would think it would be here.

But local elder Roy Cockney doesn't seem too bothered. He said the winter is a time for socializing, dancing, and Inuvialuit games played under the moonlight which "glows up" the tundra.

"We're always busy," he said. "I don't think we think about the dark so much, because of all the things that are happening."

Psychiatrists who work in the North agree — SAD plays little to no part in their practice.

Cockney says winter is a time for socializing, dancing and Inuvialuit games played under the moonlight which 'glows up' the tundra. (Eriel Lugt/TukTV)

"It's not something that I ever look for," said Sheila Levy, who runs the Nunavut Kamatsiaqtut Help Line for mental health. "I can understand why people [in the North] roll their eyes at it."

Allison Crawford, a psychiatrist who advises counsellors in Nunavut's northernmost Qikiqtaaluk region, agrees.

"I would say it doesn't really influence my practice anymore," she said.  "It's almost like folk mythology."

It's almost like folk mythology.- Allison Crawford, Psychiatrist

Seasonal changes are "not usually the stated reason for people feeling down or depressed," Crawford said. 

"I actually would say I've never heard it."

No large-scale, systematic study of seasonal depression among Inuit has been conducted. But even outside the North, the idea of SAD is coming under fire.

After decades of research interest and public enthusiasm, some psychiatrists say the profession is quietly moving away from SAD. Today, the disorder is less popular than ever — and new research is questioning whether it can even be said to exist.

How did the story of SAD get this unhappy ending?

The moon setting over Inuvik, N.W.T., at 1 p.m. In the northernmost parts of the territories, the sun is not seen in the sky for over a month. (Kristian Binder/Eighty One Images)

SAD's rise to fame is problematic

First recognized as a disorder in 1986, SAD's path from theory to diagnosis was unusual in psychiatry.

The disorder is the brainchild of Norman Rosenthal, who self-diagnosed with seasonal depression after moving from South Africa to New York City.

Rosenthal's diagnosis — a seasonal pattern of increased sleep and appetite for carbohydrates — found theoretical grounding when he joined Alfred Lewy's team of researchers at the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH).

Lewy's research was exploring connections between light and the biological rhythms of the body, via the brain's production of melatonin — a hormone that regulates sleep.

Psychiatrists who work with Nunavut's northernmost communities, like Grise Fiord, say seasonal affective disorder isn't part of their practice. (CBC)

In a seminar on SAD organized by the Wellcome Trust, Lewy described this discovery as a "rocket ship" taking him "into unknown territory."

But it was Rosenthal's unusual methods that planted SAD in the public imagination.

Theorizing a connection between light and seasonal depression, Rosenthal linked up with a Washington Post reporter who wrote an article describing the symptoms of SAD in 1981.

"Thousands of people responded from all over the country," said Rosenthal in an interview with CBC. "That then became the basis for the syndrome."


John Last


John Last is a freelance reporter and producer currently based in Padua, Italy. For the past four years, he covered Northern Canada and the Arctic for CBC North. His reporting work has taken him through Europe, the Middle East and the American South.


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