Objective: In DSM-IV, winter seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is classified as a seasonal pattern of recurrent major depressive episodes in winter with full remission of symptoms in summer. However, other groups with "winter depression" have been identified, including patients with incomplete summer remission (ISR) and subsyndromal SAD (sub-SAD, winter depressive symptoms that do not meet criteria for major depression). In this study, we compare the clinical characteristics of these three seasonal groups and their response to light therapy.
Method: 558 patients assessed at a specialized SAD Clinic were diagnosed using DSM-III-R or DSM-IV criteria. Clinical information was recorded using a checklist at index assessment. A subset of patients (N=192) were treated with an open, 2 week trial of light therapy using a 10000 lux fluorescent light box for 30 min per day in the early morning. Patients were assessed before and after treatment with the 29 item modified Hamilton Depression Rating Scale and clinical response was defined as greater than 50% improvement in scores.
Results: The rates of some melancholic symptoms, anxiety, panic, suicidal ideation, and family history of mood disorder were lowest in the sub-SAD group. The clinical response rates to light therapy were highest in the sub-SAD group (N=32, 78%), intermediate in the SAD group (N=113, 66%), and lowest in the ISR group (N=47, 51%).
Limitations: This was a retrospective study of patients seen in a specialty clinic, although information was obtained in a standardized format. The light therapy trial had an open design so that placebo response could not be determined.
Conclusions: There are differences in both the patterns of clinical symptoms and the response to light therapy in these three groups with winter depression. These results are consistent with a dual vulnerability hypothesis that considers these groups to result from interaction of separate factors for seasonality and depression.