Tackling seasonal depression in Canada

November 16, 2000

Dusky mornings, bone-chilling days and long dark nights - Canadian winters can wear on even the most cheerful souls. But for some people the cold months bring disabling depression, and a new national study in Canada is looking for the best way to treat this distinctly northern affliction.

The CAN-SAD study will test the effectiveness of different types and combinations of anti-depressants and fluorescent light therapy in patients with seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Right now there is little scientific evidence on which treatment is most effective for the disorder, says Dr. Anthony Levitt of the University of Toronto's psychiatry department and Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre.

There is frequently a misunderstanding about seasonal depression among some physicians and the general public, says Levitt, one of five researchers across Canada involved in the CAN-SAD study. "People always talk about seasonal depression in a kind of folksy, almost comical way. We talk about the winter blahs, but the truth is the people who really have seasonal depression suffer considerably and for these people it's definitely not comical." In a recent survey of the general population in Toronto published in the October issue of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Levitt found about three per cent of people have seasonal depression, a higher percentage than other well-researched diseases such as schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder

. Another issue with SAD, Levitt says, is that people with the condition know they will feel better when the weather changes so they often do not seek treatment. The more than 600,000 Canadians who suffer from SAD each year may experience fatigue, overeating, oversleeping, loss of interest in life and even thoughts of suicide. "For several months of the year these people are dysfunctional-they can only function for 50 per cent of the year and that's unacceptable to most people."

Levitt's interest in seasonal depression started as an effort to refute its existence - a pursuit he soon abandoned. "I've given up the search to disprove it since I have come to see how common and disabling SAD is. Now I'm looking at ways of making it better."
The CAN-SAD study is funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research. People interested in participating in the study can call 416-480-4444.

CONTACT: Professor Anthony Levitt
Department of Psychiatry

Megan Easton
U of T Public Affairs
416- 978-5948

University of Toronto

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