The Catholic University of America

Student Affairs

The Counseling Center Helps Students Impacted by Wintertime Blues


By Mike Allen, vice president for student affairs, and Monroe Rayburn, director of the Counseling Center

Located in O’Boyle Hall and representing a nationally competitive training site for mental health clinicians, the CUA Counseling Center provides a broad range of direct counseling, educational, training, consultative, outreach, assessment, and emergency response services. The mission of the Counseling Center is to enhance the overall educational experiences of students by assisting them through the various demands, challenges, and opportunities of university life. This includes helping students understand and address mental health needs, paving the way for a path of academic success and life enrichment.

Each year, the Counseling Center sees between 10 and 15% of the full-time population of students. Last year, more than 500 individuals received services. Most of these students were seen weekly for seven or eight counseling sessions at no charge. While individual and group therapy constitute the majority of the center’s focus, consultation and outreach programming are also important aspects of addressing student wellness on campus. As one might expect, midterms and finals can be stressful weeks for students, and this trend shows in therapy attendance and levels of anxiety in students during sessions. This is a trend that is reliable each year and staff at the Counseling Center prepare for these peak times in their work. Another noteworthy trend anticipated by center staff and observed in our students (and in up to 20% of individuals residing in northern climates all over the world) is the seasonal pattern of mood changes in winter months with less direct daily sunlight.

When the last vestiges of radiant autumn sunshine — the oranges, pinks, purples, and golds — give way to hues of gray and early sunsets, many people notice a distinct change in energy and mood. After Halloween passes and our clocks “fall back” another hour, it is not at all uncommon to experience a sense of being down, as though we move slower, with greater effort, when compared to sunnier, warmer days. It is almost as though we are inclined to hibernate through the coldest of the winter months, especially December through February. In fact, some theorists believe that humans, like many other mammals, are genetically programmed to hibernate in the winter when food is scarce.

For individuals who live in colder climates, farther from the equator with less daily direct sunlight, the constant blanket of gray skies is believed to impact their biorhythms. For individuals sensitive to “winter blues,” here are a few options to consider:

  • Spend at least 30 minutes each day outside on sunny days
  • Try to work near a window in the winter
  • Read under bright, ample light
  • Get plenty of exercise, outdoors if possible
  • Keep your sleep/wake routine as regular as possible
  • Practice balanced nutrition, including any supplements prescribed by your doctor

For those with more pronounced changes in mood, energy, and focus, professional interventions may be required:

  • Consider talking to your doctor for a full check-up to rule out other medical concerns such as thyroid concerns, mono, or a vitamin D deficiency
  • Medication such as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) might be considered
  • Use of a “full spectrum” light box (30 to 60 minutes per day) can be helpful and is available by prescription
  • Brief counseling is provided to faculty and staff as a benefit through the University’s Employee Assistance Program (Carebridge; call 800-437-0911).

For more information, please contact the CUA Counseling Center at 202-319-5765.