Mental Health

Depression and seasonal affective disorder – what’s the difference?

The winter blues and seasonal affective disorder can affect adults, children and teenagers. Find out more in order to better tell them apart, successfully alleviate their symptoms and be referred to an appropriate treatment.

Seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

When skies become grey and it becomes dark and cold, 15% of Canadians experience the winter blues, which may be characterized by increased fatigue, reduced desire to carry out activities, and even a sense of sadness. 

The winter blues must not be confused with seasonal affective disorder, which affects 5% of Canadians. 

Seasonal affective disorder is a depressive state that affects a person’s daily activities and persists beyond two weeks.

And although 70% to 80% of people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder are women, anyone can experience it, including children and teens.

It is a challenging disorder, considering that winter makes up one third of the year. Nonetheless, certain treatments and tools can improve the quality of life of those who are battling seasonal affective disorder. 


Seasonal affective disorder occurs mainly during winter, yet symptoms may appear during the fall. Decreased luminosity is believed to be its chief cause.

As a matter of fact, certain symptoms may be caused by a gland located in the brain called the pineal body, which is also known as a person’s “biological clock”. In response to a decrease in luminosity, the pineal body secretes melatonin, a hormone that leads to increased feelings of fatigue.

As is the case with other mental health disorders, only a healthcare professional with relevant experience, such as a doctor or psychiatrist may diagnose seasonal affective disorder.


Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, manifests in a depressed mood associated with one or several of the following symptoms:

  • Irritability
  • Feelings of sadness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Lack of energy
  • Increased or decreased hunger
  • Loss of interest in usually pleasurable activities
  • Considerable energy required in social situations
  • Loss of motivation at work, difficulty meeting deadlines

In SAD, these symptoms systematically reappear each autumn and/or winter. Diagnosis can prove difficult, considering that certain stressors are also associated with said seasons (e.g., the return to school, the holidays).


Depression is a mental health disorder marked by feelings of despair, sadness or uselessness that are strong enough to disrupt a person’s everyday ability to function.

It decreases quality of life, affects interpersonal relationships, reduces productivity and can lead to chronic diseases such as diabetes or certain heart diseases.

Depression is the second-most frequent mental health disorder, following anxiety.


Depression is a complex illness that may result from multiple factors:

  • Genetic predisposition or a family history of depression
  • Emotional predisposition to depression
  • Chemical imbalance of the brain or disruption of endocrine and immune systems
  • Emotionally draining, stressful and challenging ordeal (loss of a loved one, sickness, separation, etc.)
  • Problems at work or in a personal relationship
  • Financial hardship
  • Substance dependency issues 
  • Changes in neurological state (e.g., stroke) 
  • Reaction to illness (e.g., cancer)
  • In women: hormonal shifts brought on by pregnancy, childbirth or menopause


An overwhelming feeling of despair that lasts longer than two weeks is the main symptom of major depression. Symptoms of depression may manifest themselves physically, behaviourally or in terms of thinking. Some of these symptoms impair a person’s day-to-day functioning, the carrying out of tasks and responsibilities at work or school, as well as social relationships.

Here are a number of indicators to monitor:

  • Feelings of despair
  • Feelings of indifference towards life and one’s entourage
  • Extreme fatigue and lack of energy
  • Frequent need to cry without apparent reason
  • Loss of interest in usually pleasurable activities, in work and in leisure
  • Decreased libido
  • Isolation from loved ones
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Loss of or increase in appetite
  • Insomnia or changes in sleep patterns
  • Frequent headaches and digestive problems
  • Feelings of incompetence, guilt, pessimism or lack of self-esteem
  • Feeling slowed down or “in slow motion”
  • Irritability
  • Memory problems
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Losing touch with reality, having auditory hallucinations or delusions 

In children and teenagers, depression can manifest itself in the following ways:

  • Refusal to attend school
  • Pretending to be sick
  • Irritability
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Overwhelming fear that an attachment figure may die

If you are experiencing doubts in regards with your child’s symptoms, feel free to discuss them with their pediatrician or another doctor. 

How to treat depression

Depression is not something that a person can “get over” on their own, but it certainly can be cured. 

In most cases, admitting that it’s a sickness and that it’s necessary to get help is the first step of the healing process. 

Psychotherapy and the use of medication to treat depression (e.g., antidepressants), or a combination of the two, remain the most effective treatment. 

Other factors can assist with recovery:

  • Support from loved ones
  • Avoiding isolation, maintaining contact with loved ones over the phone, via videoconferencing or in person
  • Choosing a few people close to one’s heart to confide in
  • Maintaining a regular and sufficient sleep schedule according to one’s needs
  • Exposing oneself to natural light every day
  • Maintaining a routine
  • 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise at least 3 times per week in order to promote the secretion of hormones that provide feelings of wellbeing
  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Remaining empathetic towards oneself and practising self-care

For further information and to get support, consult your pharmacist or healthcare professional.

What’s the difference between seasonal affective disorder and depression? 

Seasonal affective disorder occurs every year at the same time, when natural light becomes increasingly scarce. 

Depression can occur at any time of the year. Even though depressive episodes may occur more than once during a person’s lifetime, depression is not cyclical.

In both cases, a diagnosis must be made by a mental health specialist. 


Seasonal affective disorder and major depression are serious mental health disorders. It is not possible for a person to simply “get over it”. Blaming a person suffering from depression may intensify their feelings of distress and isolation.

How to treat seasonal affective disorder 

Psychotherapy and the use of medication to treat depression (e.g., antidepressants), or a combination of the two, remain the most effective treatment. 

Still, there are several other ways to help improve your mood:

  • Light therapy: exposing oneself for about 30 minutes per day to 10,000 lux is recommended in most cases. Your pharmacist-owner affiliated with Accès pharma chez Walmart can guide you in choosing the product best suited to meet your needs.
  • Being attentive to one’s needs in terms of rest, sleep and diet, devoting more time to self-care
  • Seeking out exposure to natural light: pulling curtains back, going outside even when it’s cloudy, etc.
  • Exercising, even if just a short 15-minute walk 
  • Maintaining a regular sleep schedule – Listening to one’s needs all the while avoiding oversleeping, as excessive sleep can aggravate symptoms of depression 
  • Staying in touch with loved ones 
  • Maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle

If you suffer from seasonal affective disorder each year, start your treatment before your first symptoms appear.

It may prove necessary to take medication to treat depression, such as antidepressants. Prescriptions must be written by and diagnoses made by an authorized healthcare professional, e.g., a doctor or psychiatrist.

Your pharmacist – who is often more accessible and available – may then support you while you take your medication by helping you to curb side effects. 

If you are having suicidal thoughts or are in need of immediate help, consult the Help and Resources section of the Government of Québec to obtain resources adapted to your situation. 

This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice, and pharmacist-owners affiliated with Accès pharma chez Walmart cannot be held responsible for this information. The information was true and accurate at the time of publication, but it is subject to change. 

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