We are again in the throes of summer; warm weather, sunshine, and vacations; somehow life seems to be just a little bit better for most of us. So, what does that mean about our mental health?
In 2013 the United States and Australia joined together with Google to track trends in searches regarding mental health issues. The results parallel what the medical and mental health community have observed; mental health concerns drop in the summer and increase in the winter. Major mental illnesses considered in the study included anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, ADHD, anorexia and depression. Here are some of the findings:
- Eating disorder searches were down 37 percent in summers versus winters in the U.S., and 42 percent in summers in Australia.
- Schizophrenia searches decreased 37 percent during U.S. summers and by 36 percent in Australia.
- Bipolar searches were down 16 percent during U.S. summers and 17 percent during Australian summers.
- ADHD searches decreased by 28 percent in the U.S. and 31 percent in Australia during summertime.
- OCD searches were down 18 percent and 15 percent, and bipolar searches decreased by 18 percent and 16 percent, in the U.S. and Australia respectively.
- Searches for suicide declined 24 and 29 percent during U.S. and Australian summers and anxiety searches had the smallest seasonal change – down 7 percent during U.S. summers and 15 percent during Australian summers.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) has been extensively researched for years in the medical/mental health communities. It is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year; symptoms typically start in the Fall and continue into the winter months. Less often, SAD causes depression in the Spring or early Summer.
Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, the author of Set Free to Live Free: Breaking Through the 7 Lies Women Tell Themselves, noticed patients with eating disorders and other mental illnesses have an increase in their symptoms during the months from November through March. She said the results of the United States – Australia study could be used to encourage more screenings for mental illnesses during winter months. “The severity of the symptoms seems to be in direct proportion to the amount of stress the person is under during those times,” Dalton-Smith said.
She adds that she sees a number of other patients with mental illnesses like depression and anxiety increase especially between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. “These particular mental illnesses are often exacerbated during times of the year when there is a greater expectation of personal performance,” Dalton-Smith said.
Other changes that happen with the season that may influence one’s mental health can be
environmental. Weather allows us to be more active, be outdoors, and easily engage with others during the Spring and Summer months; we increase our time in the sun [Vitamin D has long been seen as a positive influence on mood], are physically active to increase our endorphin pool, and we have a larger variety of ways to interact with people around us. As Fall and Winter approach the days get shorter with less daylight hours, the weather may alter the types of activities we engage in, and traditionally our bodies just seem to want to hibernate a bit more; these factors can lead to isolation and lethargy, tied to feeling depressed.
Bottom line, is to remain mentally healthy we want to be physically active, spending time on outdoor activities and interacting with others year-round. Researchers say:
- 20 minutes of sunlight a day could yield recognizable results in mood
- 30-45 minutes of exercise daily increases endorphin activity
- Dietary changes towards foods that increase our metabolism and add essential nutrients may “jump-start” increases in physical activities
- Directly interacting with people [face-to-face, phone] diminishes depression due to isolation
- Meeting with a mental health profession for persistent mood disorders can be “icing on the cake” to get through the “seasonal blues”.