New Lights At Western Hope To Help With Seasonal Depression

Mar 15, 2017

Cleon Ludwick installs the new energy-efficient lights in Western Michigan University's Friedmann Hall. If you look closely, you can see how blue the new lights look compared to the more yellow lights down the hall.
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

We’ve been lucky this season, but Michigan winters are usually known for a lack of sunshine. For some people that can trigger seasonal depression. Western Michigan University has been moving to more energy-efficient light bulbs - with hope that the lights might have the added bonus of boosting the moods of students and staff. 

“They’re only a 25 watt light but then they shine really bright, they have a white light emulating the sun. To help you feel more happier, you know, when the sun shines like summertime," says Sharacene Sutton, one of the people helping to install the new lights. 

Sutton says it’s still dark outside when many students come to class in the morning. The university wants the hallways to be inviting.

“Those dark carpets just kind of suck the light out of the room. So we start installing the brighter lights where it’ll give you, you know, a better welcome into the building,” she says.

Stephan Macomber is a supervisor in facilities management at WMU. It was his idea - or at least moving to the more energy efficient lights was his idea. Macomber says these new bulbs are cheaper, use less energy, and last twice as long as the old ones.

They also have twice as much lux or light output in an area - something that people who have seasonal depression need.

“Initially we wanted to change these only in corridors, public spaces, restrooms, and so forth," says Macomber.

"It wasn’t long after we started the change out, that occupants of offices asked if they could change their lights as well to this new color."

Though Macomber says they’ve put very few lights in offices so far.

In the winter, it can seem like everyone has seasonal affective disorder. People are feeling sluggish and gloomy. Mark St. Martin is an associate professor in Western’s Holistic Health and Wellness program and a licensed psychologist. He says only about five percent of people living in the U.S. have a diagnosable case: 

“It could be you’re not doing the things that you love. It’s too cold to go out and do some of the things. So it could be these other pieces. So that’s where the five percent comes in versus what you’re hearing from a majority of people of, ‘Ugh, winter. I’m not feeling great.’”

But for those who do have seasonal affective disorder, St. Martin says it’s a serious condition - just like depression any other time of the year. To feel better, St. Martin says some people with seasonal affective disorder use something called a light box:

“So for those individuals that lack of light really has an effect on the chemicals in their brain which leads to symptoms of depression - it’s like a subset of major depression. And so the light box is meant to provide them with that spectrum of light that then can help their body produce the vitamin D or the chemicals.”

St. Martin says psychologists usually recommend sitting close to the light box for about half an hour every day. He says many light boxes put out at least 10,000 lux.

“There are lights below that and they can go down to about 2,500 lux and that just means though the individual is going to need more exposure to that light over a longer period of time then. And of course, if it’s farther away, that again increases the amount of exposure needed to get those benefits as well. I mean when we’re thinking about lux, in the summertime the sun is putting out about a 100,000 lux.”

The lights the university put in, however, are only 700 lux. So will lights in the ceiling help depressed students in the hallways? St. Martin thinks not.

“Being that far away, you’re going to need a lot more - and it needs to be day after day. And so if these lights are not everywhere then yeah it’s sort of…the likelihood of it having a significant impact on seasonal affective disorder is probably on the lower end.”

But what about a Western employee sitting under the lights for six to eight hours a day? St. Martin says maybe.

Even then, he says, it’s best to use more than one type of treatment for seasonal depression. Often light therapy is more effective when combined with talk therapy sessions, medication, or even an exercise regimen. As far as Western’s lights are concerned, St. Martin says keep your expectations realistic.

“If individuals are suffering from symptoms seasonal affective disorder - or have diagnosable seasonal affective disorder - to seek help and not think that lights in a building are going to be the difference makers,”says St. Martin.