Panaro: Cleveland’s winter wonderland also brings SAD

Kevin Panaro, Contributing Columnist

In many ways, the term “spring semester” is a misnomer. As some students return from a warm and restful break, they are thrust into the brutal Cleveland winter. With global warming, these extreme weather patterns have only worsened: snowfall is heavier, ice is slicker and the air is colder. As the small white flakes obscure the gray sky, the sun peaks lower and lower each day. These individual changes can sometimes cause seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. 

SAD is a type of depression related to changes in the seasons, and symptoms can include low energy, pervasive sluggishness, thoughts of hopelessness and difficulty concentrating. With the recent snowfall, it’s important to recognize that the winter months are particularly challenging for some people. As a campus community, we should provide spaces for those struggling to allow them to be honest with their feelings and encourage them to reach out for help.

Luckily, it seems as though some students have taken initiative. In October 2019, Acts of Random Kindness hosted a SAD awareness event, presenting facts about the illness and hosting sunshine-themed giveaways. This is a great start, but perhaps more student organizations could step up in the coming months with similar giveaways, forums and discussions. As the winter rages on, it is important to provide continuous support and encouragement to others in our community.

Regardless of whether or not  you’re diagnosed with SAD, winter can still seriously dampen your mood. The lower temperatures and increased snow requires more layers and makes it physically harder to make it to class. People spend less time outside and more time cramped indoors stressing about exams, papers and homework. This only exacerbates the stress and grind culture so prevalent on campus.

Unfortunately, sometimes the administration only makes these problems worse, or, at the very least, does little to combat them. One big weakness is refusing to ever close the universityunless the temperature is minus 30 degrees and developing frostbite is a tangible possibility. According to a 2014 study by Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor Joshua Goodman, keeping schools open following a snowstorm can ultimately hurt students’ learning. 

Trudging through the snow is simply not worth it for a 9:30 a.m. lecture. These instances of missed classes can be made up, as most professors provide leeway in the syllabus for circumstances like these. Additionally, days off provide an overworked and unrested population a welcome respite and a chance to get ahead—the positive effects of which few can deny. 

Goodman’s study instead found that while snow closures or delays do not impact students academically, absences, especially regular absences, do make a lasting impact. These absences, he cited, could be due to transportation problems, domestic trouble or illness. The last of these is of particular note, for an emphasis on addressing mental health—be it seasonal or otherwise—is critical for students, professors and staff to succeed. 

Of course, many excuse the university’s unwillingness to cancel classes, claiming that students signed up for these conditions when they accepted their offer of admission. However, on the admissions end, the university does little to advertise the extremes of the weather, especially when students visit in the spring months while it’s a comfortable 70 degrees. If they happen to visit during the winter, it’s as a selling point: a supposed winter wonderland with hot drinks and bright white snowflakes covering the Case Western Reserve University campus. While there may be days when Cleveland is a winter wonderland, these snowy days do not always remedy seasonal depression.

CWRU has many services available to students who are experiencing mental health with free counseling services and apps such as Reach Out. However, the university would do well to recognize seasonal affective disorder, if only to educate those that might not even be aware. Some sort of campaign and increased willingness to actually cancel classes are easy steps that could produce measurable increases in the overall happiness and well-being of the campus. Such an effort could even take the form of a Faculty Friday luncheon about SAD, in which a relevant professor is brought in to discuss research or helpful tips; any measurable show of support could go a long way. Even with services available, it is not all too difficult to experience seasonal depression on campus and in Cleveland.

This is not to discredit winter as a season: there are many associated positives, like the beautiful scenery, hot chocolate, sledding, snowmen, snow forts, snow angels and the quiet that comes with a fresh snowfall, as a cold white blanket covers the sky.

In the end, the university is pretty set in its ways and likely will never fully acknowledge the difficulty some students have with the changing seasons, especially those that come from warmer, more temperate climates. What we as students can do is change the culture. Instead of praying for snow days and decrying the colder weather, we can bulk up, put on our boots, strap on our gloves and make the most of the snow, perhaps with a good old-fashioned snowball fight.