The Surprising Power of Light Therapy for College Students With SAD

One university found that just two weeks of using light box therapy can significantly improve the lives of students struggling with seasonal affective disorder.

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Bevan Fields, a junior at Millersville University, first saw signs about light therapy around campus her freshman year. Initially, she was skeptical, but her sophomore year, she decided to try it out.

Her freshman year, Fields noticed she felt more depressed during the colder months. She would stay in her dorm most of the time rather than socializing, and often didn’t leave even when she needed to get home.

“I wasn’t really in a great place,” Fields told The Daily Beast. “I was also really skeptical about it working. I had never really had that intense of depression before. I notice that when spring came around, my mood went up, and I figured that was seasonal affective disorder—and I was right.”

Now, twice a week, she goes to the counseling center at her school and sits in front of a light box for between 15 and 30 minutes while doing homework. She finds it relaxing, and she’s noticed a major difference in her mood and work ethic.

The demand for mental health care on college campuses is increasing significantly. And as seasonal affective disorder affects 10 million Americans, many students experience this, meaning they have more depressive episodes during the fall and winter months.

Light therapy is a common treatment for seasonal affective disorder, regularizing the patient’s circadian rhythm and balancing melatonin and serotonin. When melatonin and serotonin levels are unbalanced, they can negatively impact sleep behaviors and mood.

I notice that when spring came around, my mood went up, and I figured that was seasonal affective disorder—and I was right.
Bevan Fields, junior, Millersville University

That’s why Lisa House, clinical psychologist and associate professor at Millersville University, conducted a study published in The Journal of College Student Psychotherapy on the surprising effectiveness of light therapy on college campuses. Her team investigated a sample of 79 college students and found that light therapy improved depression scores, as well as sleeping behaviors. In addition, students who received light therapy had less somatic aches and pains, concentration difficulties, and appetite problems. That’s hugely important for college students, whose reports of mental health issues have jumped in the past decade, and who face consequences that can affect their immediate future: time missed can lead to poorer performance and grades that can affect post-college academic or job choices, and beyond.

“Not only are we seeing students who need care for mental health problems, but the intensity is increasing,” House said. “We were trying to find cost-effective means of treating students with seasonal affective disorder or mild depression. We have students who want to try a means of treatment that don’t require medication.”

At the school’s counseling center, once students are educated on how to use a light box, they can start using it without having to be in a one-on-one session with a counselor.

One benefit of light therapy is that it’s quick-acting, and her team noticed that symptoms improve significantly after two weeks. In addition, it’s cost-effective, which benefits colleges as mental health resource demand is increasing.

“Students are working more while going to school,” Kelsey Backels, director of the counseling center at Millersville University, said. “There’s a lot of pressure on them. It seems to keep going up and up. We see the demand for our services increase everywhere.”

After undergoing light therapy, students have reported that they feel calmer and socialize more, says Chelsea Neal, a third-year clinical psychology student in the masters program at Millersville University who worked on the study. Students reported decreases in depression, more sleep, better concentration levels and more regular eating patterns.

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“It can make them more aware of the need to be in the sun,” Neal said. “We emphasize the need to get natural sunlight in life... Overall their bodies were more in sync, since they were sleeping better and eating better.”

In addition, light therapy works with college students’ schedules, as they can study or read while sitting in front of a light box. Multiple students can use a light box at once, meeting more students’ needs at once.

Students are working more while going to school. There’s a lot of pressure on them. It seems to keep going up and up. We see the demand for our services increase everywhere.
Kelsey Backels, director of counseling, Millersville University

However, for light therapy to be fully effective, students must commit to it and make it a habit to use the light box if they have seasonal affective disorder. Skipping sessions or being infrequent doesn’t seem to help as much. Regularity is key.

House’s team hopes to continue making students more aware of the light therapy resource on campus, as well as educate interested students on how to use it. If students do not use light boxes appropriately, they may experience side effects such as eye strain or headaches. In addition, if students have bipolar disorder, light therapy can trigger a manic episode if not used properly.

For future research, House wants to study differences in the effectives of light therapy based on duration or frequency, as well as accounting for if medication was taken in addition to light therapy. More colleges, such as University of Washington, Purdue University, and University of Maryland have light therapy resources for students.

As for Fields, since doing light therapy, she has noticed a change in her mood levels. Compared to her freshman year, she spends more time with friends and is more proactive with her school work.

“I think it’s a worthwhile thing to try,” Fields said. “I’ve recommended it to other people. I definitely have and will continue to suggest it to people who have trouble with depression.”