I’ve always found myself somewhat indifferent to the summer holidays; that’s not to say I am not grateful for the break, but the sudden switch from going at 100 miles per hour to having to confront empty days, followed by more empty days, has always had a profound effect on my mental health.
Being totally left without a sense of purpose or sense of worth, has resulted in any progress I had made in my recovery from my mental illnesses to completely collapse in the space of a mere few weeks. The fact is, yes we all need a break from the chaos of everyday life to mentally recuperate and have a breather; but, for some people with mental health issues, extended periods of time without an established routine or structure to their days can have detrimental effects on their wellbeing.
Research has indicated that nearly a tenth of people diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder – or SAD – experience their depressive symptoms during summer. SAD is recognised and diagnosed as major depression that follows a seasonal pattern for at least two years. According to Norman Rosenthal, a leading clinical professor of psychiarty at Georgetown University Medical School, and one of the researchers first responsible for coining the term seasonal affective disorder, ‘while nobody knows for sure why people get summer depression, there are two main culprits: light and temperature’. Indeed, ‘while many people think that light is an agent of happiness and energy, for some, light has the opposite effect. And the oppressive heat can cause people to feel agitated’ as opposed to the typical feelings of lethargy.
Unsurprisingly, there is a distinct lack of formal research studies into summertime depression, with most people associating feelings of sadness and symptoms of over/under-eating often exclusively to the dark and cold months of winter. But just as winter SAD occurs as a result of waning sunlight, which may throw off a number of light-mediated biological processes from sleep-wake cycles to mood and energy regulation, it is during summer that similar functions may be disrupted by the abundance of sunlight, or by the heat that goes along with it. Summer, therefore, is as a hazardous time as winter in which mental health issues and symptoms of depression can arise. With bouts of hot weather comes dehydration and poor appetite, therefore impacting nutrition, with people also being more likely to experience insomnia during this hot weather. Behind all the Instagram posts documenting the glorious sunshine, the trips to the beach, and BBQs and drinks with friends, the reality of the situation is that some people become extremely susceptible to poorer mental health at this time of year with the very onset of summer triggering symptoms of depression.
Furthermore, it has become increasingly recognised that the modern phenomenon known as “fear of missing out”, or FOMO, is also able to exacerbate the feelings of summer SAD. When there’s nice weather, us Brits drop everything in seconds to have ourselves a day by the beach. Sunbathing, ice creams and swimming: just three things that are incredibly idyllic for a population accustomed to rain and overcast skies. For those suffering with summer SAD, however, this is the last way they wish to spend their time, and with this lack of company creates palpable loneliness and an overwhelming awareness that you’re an outsider.
As well as the issue of SAD, with the summer holidays comes uninterrupted peace from the stresses of work, or education – something that is not as gladly accepted by all as some might think. For individuals with high-functioning depression, for example, the calmness of the summer months makes sufferers vulnerable to feelings of worthlessness, despair and panic. Last summer, I found myself completely burdened with thoughts of how useless and lazy I was after a summer job I had been interviewed for fell through. Without the small sense of gratification gained from knowing I had been somewhat productive with my time – as opposed to wasting it – forced me into prolonged chapters of depression, anxiety and frustration. I should have been making the most of my holiday and enjoying my time off, but I felt wracked with guilt because my all my time amounted to absolutely nothing valuable.
It’s incredibly difficult for those untroubled by such issues to understand. Ultimately, summer is known for being the time of year that’s full of adventure, fun and relaxation, but reports have found that it is during summer that increased rates of people have expressed suicidal intent and/or ideation. Summer depression, and summer SAD, are some of the most commonly and notoriously misunderstood mental health conditions – something that a large proportion of society remains ignorant to. Nonetheless, society should always look to educate itself where there are fundamental, and possibly life-threatening, gaps in its understanding of issues such as this.
Around this time of year, it is always worth checking in with those around you, and asking those you care for how they really are. It only takes five seconds to initiate the conversation, and, for those who are struggling this could be the lifeline they need. Look out for one another this summer – you may not realise who really needs it.