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Dropping Depression with Sunlight: Using Light Box Therapy

Marianne Caesar
Staff Writer

With winter approaching, students must face both class schedule changes and climate shifts. One way to handle the emotional and mental shifts within ourselves is through the new therapy available from the counseling center, utilizing light box therapy. Starting on Sept. 29, 2014, the Millersville University Center for Counseling and Human Development began to offer therapy sessions several times a week in which students could sit at a desk area completing work, while boxes emanate light onto them.

Thus far 10 students have taken advantage of the new therapy, and students will be accepted until February due to continual inquiry from students. According to Dr. Lisa House of the Millersville University Center for Counseling and Human Development, “Addressing the growing incidence of depression amongst college students is an important task for college counseling centers. For most people with SAD, symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, causing low energy, concentration problems, sleep difficulties, down moods, and feelings of hopelessness. Light box therapy is one of the first line treatments for fall-onset Seasonal Affective Disorder (Mayo Clinic). It generally starts working in a few days to two weeks and causes few side effects. Light box therapy is most effective when it is done in the morning hours (before noon).”

Millersville University’s Center for Counseling and Human Development offers light box therapy sessions several times a week.
Millersville University’s Center for Counseling and Human Development offers light box therapy sessions several times a week.

Traditionally, the range of time during which individuals sit beneath the lit area includes thirty minutes up to two hours, and the light bulbs themselves radiate light which is magnified up to twenty times brighter than normal indoor lights, according to Web M. D.. “It is important for the individual to focus on the activities happening within the area the light shines upon, rather than the light itself. Examples of this include eating a meal or in students’ cases, completing homework or reading.”

If interested in utilizing this therapy, a student must be medically screened and cleared first. After this, the students configure schedule light box therapy two to three times a week for roughly 15-30 minute sessions. Availability will be between Mondays through Friday any time prior to noon, due to the effectiveness of treatment prior to noon.

“Light box therapy can also help with sleep patterns, energy levels, and concentration levels which will allow students to function more successfully academically,” stated Dr. Lisa House. Also known as Winter/Seasonal Depression, symptoms include increased fatigue, increase in moodiness, loss of interests and concentration and weight gain, according to Web M. D.. This is a mental and physical disorder in which the change of season causes instabilities with the mood hormone, serotonin, and alters an individual’s circadian rhythms.

By using the light-box therapy, students can help maintain a more stable “biological clock,” and can also use simulations of light within their own sleeping quarters.

According to Dr. House of the university’s Center for Counseling and Human Development, “Research has shown that light box therapy has few side effects compared to antidepressant medication. In addition, light box therapy has been shown to reduce depression symptoms within 1-4 weeks as compared to the delayed effects that are typical of antidepressant medications (usually 4-6 weeks for clinical improvement.”

While she has not personally experienced the therapy yet, Dr. House stated that she may be interested in trying it out during the darker winter months due to its minimal side effects and effectiveness proven through research.

For students in their dorms and apartments, other additional ideas to treat this seasonal depression include utilizing light colors in your bedding and posters. As students are not permitted to paint their dorm room walls, suggestions to brighten up their personal space include using removable decals and temporary wallpaper. As Cengage Brains author Alana Joli Abbott suggests, adding potted plants within a room can add to the overall mood and brightness. Several plants which she suggests that are easy for care and therapy include Mint, Aloe Vera, Ivy and Violets.

As Mental Health America stated, SAD is more prevalent in women, and usually has its first onset in individuals between the ages of 18 and 30 years. The severity of the condition varies by an individuals’ geographic location and is usually less intense in areas with more snow. The presence of the disorder is very limited nearing the equator. A positive way to decrease the effect of the disorder is by taking a few short walks on campus during the day, and as an additional method, looking into the use of anti-depression medication.

All students interested in this method of treatment should contact Dr. Lisa House at the university counseling center for further information, available at the phone number (717)-872-3122. Students will be accepted into this therapy program until February.