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The (happy) light at the end of the tunnel

a/Student Living by

Dark winter days may be illuminated with a new program offered by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Mental Health Committee and McGill Mental Health Services (MMHS) called “Happy Lights.”

The program seeks to treat a mood disorder that many students experience during the winter semester when the days are colder and shorter with less exposure to sunlight. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), the lack of sunlight will lead approximately two to three per cent of the Canadian population to experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression which mainly appears during the fall and winter seasons. Symptoms can include feelings of hopelessness and irritability, weight gain, oversleeping, and change in appetite. While only a small percent of the population will experience SAD, the CMHA notes that 15 percent of the population will experience a milder form of the disease (called subsyndromal SAD) which manifests in less severe depressive symptoms that don’t completely interrupt one’s daily life, but still pose noticeable effects.

McGill students are among the social groups most vulnerable to SAD. The disease is most prominent among those under the age of 50, females (who are four times more likely to experience the disease), and those in northern regions that are farther from the equator.

“We enter the library as the sun begins to rise, only to leave once the sun has set and so we fail to acknowledge how much the simplest things can affect our mood,” said Anna Pearson, a member of the Mental Health Outreach Committee for SSMU.

Recognizing the consequences that SAD and winter blues can have on students’ mental health, SSMU President Kareem Ibrahim and Vice President (VP) University Affairs Chloe Rourke spearheaded a program called Happy Lights, which launched near the end of last semester. The two executives teamed up with the SSMU Mental Health Committee and MMHS to organize and fund the program, the cost of which will be split evenly between the two organizations. 

Undergraduate students can now rent out one of 25 light therapy lamps for a two-week period. These lamps simulate outdoor light in order to spur chemical changes in the brain that ease the symptoms of SAD. Two weeks is enough time for students to see if the lamps affect their mood by using them for 30 minutes to one hour each morning, depending on how far they sit from the light box. According to the CHMA, light therapy offers “substantial relief” among 60-80 per cent of those diagnosed with SAD. 

"…There are numerous units within Student Services that allow students to try using the SAD lamps (MORSL has one in their meditation room and Mental Health Services has a similar lending program)," Rourke said. "The motivation behind our initiative was to raise awareness for winter blues or seasonal affective disorder and light therapy as a form of treatment."

The initiative is one way that the SSMU Mental Health Committee and MMHS are looking to provide multi-faceted support for students with mental health issues. 

“SAD lamps provide an alternative form of therapy and can be used [independently] or in addition to other forms of therapy and medication,” Rourke said. “Mental illnesses can not be treated with a ‘one size fits all’ method, and thus providing a diversity of treatment options empowers students to choose the approaches that suit them best.”

The lamps may also be a quicker form of treatment for students experiencing SAD than other resources offered at McGill. 

“[One] reason for investing in the program is that students often reach out to mental health service for SAD,” said Jiayi Wang, one of the mental health coordinators at SSMU. “However [cognitive behavioural therapy] for SAD and light therapy are actually comparably effective for SAD during an acute episode as shown by a recent study. Therefore, students can use the lamps as a treatment option instead of having to wait for a long time to see a psychotherapist at mental health [services].” 

 When commercially sold, the price of the lamps is a barrier to many students—they go for a hefty price of around $250. Happy Lights seeks to reduce this cost by allowing students to rent them from the Brown Building for free with only a small deposit.

“These lamps are […] expensive, and light therapy is not effective for everyone,” Wang said. “Students wanting to try light therapy would have to buy a very expensive lamp that might not even work for their symptoms. This program gives students the option of trying the lamps first and seeing how they respond to light therapy before buying the lamps themselves.” 

Ian Rodgers, U2 Arts, was given a light therapy lamp as a gift. He keeps it in his dining room and uses it every three days.

“I […] don’t know if [the lamp itself] actually does anything, but the idea of taking a moment and pausing in front of a lamp for 30 minutes—if you actually make that an empty space, is generally going to be pretty beneficial,” Rodgers said.

While the program is still in its infancy, Wang notes that it has been well-received by students. 

“We have received positive feedback so far,” said Wang. “We are glad that students are using this program to try out SAD lamps and see if light therapy works for them.”

Students can stop by Suite 1200 of the Brown Building between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. to rent a light therapy lamp for a two-week period. A valid McGill ID must be presented, and a $30 deposit is required, which will be refunded if the lamp is returned on time.

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