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Winter seasonal affective disorder: a follow-up study of the first 59 patients of the National Institute of Mental Health Seasonal Studies Program
Am J Psychiatry 1996;153:1028-1036.
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OBJECTIVE: The purpose of this study was to characterize the long-term course of patients with seasonal affective disorder. METHOD: The first 59 patients with winter seasonal affective disorder who had entered winter protocols were retrospectively followed up after a mean interval of 8.8 years. Detailed life charts were constructed through use of a semistructured interview and collateral records. RESULTS: The disorder of 25 patients (42%) remained purely seasonal, with regular recurrences of winter depression and no depression or treatment through any summer. The course of illness was complicated by varying degrees of nonseasonal depression in 26 patients (44%). The disorders of eight patients (14%) had fully remitted. Certain features of the group with complicated seasonal affective disorder suggested that they were more severely ill. Twenty-four patients (41%) continued to use light treatment regularly throughout the follow-up period. Light treatment was preferred to medication for winter recurrences, although antidepressants had been used in the winter by most (63%) of the patients who still used lights at follow-up. CONCLUSIONS: The pattern of winter depressions and summer remissions remained fairly persistent over time in this group of patients. The temporal distribution of depressive episodes both within and across individual patients was consistent with the results of several recent follow-up studies of seasonal affective disorder, providing support for the predictive and construct validity of the Rosenthal et al. diagnosis of winter seasonal affective disorder. Light treatment, while remaining a safe and satisfactory treatment for many, may be insufficient for more severely ill patients. The appearance of nonseasonal depressions in patients with winter seasonal affective disorder may be associated with greater severity of illness and less responsiveness to light treatment.

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