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Summer Sadness: How hot weather affects mental health

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is traditionally associated with the winter months. Some sufferers with depression, however, find the summer sun unbearable

Aside from England progressing further than a mid-tier World Cup group, or the people’s princess Dani Dyer walking away with the Love Island title, nothing sends Britain into a frenzy quite like summer. As a typically rain-drenched nation where a muggy 12 degrees passes for an excuse to get our tops off, a bonafide unbroken spell of sunshine like our current heatwave is cause for a national holiday. But, as with all “good” things, there’s a darker side to summer.

A recent report in America’s Nature Climate Change journal has asserted a disturbing link between increased temperatures and an increase in suicide rates, finding that for every one degree increase in monthly average temperatures, the suicide rate will also increase by 0.7 percent. 

Now, as anyone who was ever vaguely in the vicinity of a statistics lesson at school will remember, correlation need not imply causation, and according to Laura Peters, Advice and Information Service Manager at Rethink Mental Illness, “a person’s decision to take their life can rarely be attributed to a singular reason”. Still: there’s no denying these stats make for a shocking headline.

Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of summer. As a rather sweaty bloke at the most forgiving of times, anything over 20, is practically torture for someone like me with body image-induced anxiety - God forbid our current 30 degree nightmare. But for others the summer itself, not just the heat, can bring more fundamental mental health issues to the surface.

“When summer hits, and there’s more to do in the evenings, I don’t really get that sense of relief,” says James, a 24-year-old creative who lives with depression and anxiety.

“It’s hard when everyone is cheery after work because of the weather, and you kinda want to head home and sit in bed but stigma means that would be unsociable. Depression in the winter is easier to tackle because going home to cook and watch a film is acceptable behaviour.”

James also finds the increased temperature on the tube hard to deal with, calling it a “catalyst for panic attacks”. “Usually it’s a real struggle in the mornings for me, but once I have tackled the feared event (getting to work) then usually I’m OK for the rest of the day,” he says. As someone whose own mental health issues were acutely triggered by the heat and claustrophobia of the tube, I can relate.

Charlotte is a 29-year-old personal assistant who suffers with generalised anxiety disorder.

“Summer, as opposed to winter, makes my anxiety 100 times worse,” she says. “I remember at school that I would dread the summer holidays – I enjoyed the freedom, and the late nights and seeing friends, but I didn’t enjoy any kind of heat, or sun or the fact that I had to wear ‘summer clothes’. I’m a winter clothes type of person and find showing skin to be traumatic.

“As soon as I start to feel hot and sweaty I become angry and anxious and don’t want to do anything but stay at home. The positivity I see around me on a daily basis doesn’t help – seeing people being happy and content just makes me feel really bad about myself.”

Charlotte’s anxieties, brought about by a variety of summer-specific factors, are similar to those experienced by people with reverse SAD. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short, affects around 1 in 15 Britons every year during the winter months, where shorter days and less sunshine spark a decrease in serotonin, also known as the “happy chemical”.

SAD can cause temporary depression in those affected by it and is now a well-known annual phenomenon. Reverse SAD, where those affected find their mood worsens in the summer months, is far less well known, as it only affects 10 percent of SAD sufferers.

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Symptoms of reverse SAD include insomnia, poor appetite, weight loss, agitation, and anxiety. This can be caused by the increased heat and humidity, allergy-induced inflammation (which has been known to trigger depression) and, like Charlotte touched on, feeling that you’re out of step with your sun-loving friends.

“I find it harder in the summer with the added pressure that we should all be really happy during summer months,” says Tilly, a 23-year-old theatre producer and artist who has suffered with anxiety and depression for eight years. 

“Everyone assumes everyone else is super good because it’s sunny.

“Hard days are a lot harder if it’s sunny outside so you feel you should be outside enjoying life but you wanna be curled in a ball.” 

Richard is a 31-year-old printing technician whose mental health issues revolve around an anxiety with his health, meaning he obsessively fears serious illnesses and death. 

“I mostly keep a lid on it if I can stay active,” he says. “But it flares up when I’m stressed and can quickly spiral into insomnia and fear when I lose control.”

Summer is difficult for Richard because the heat means his sleep is disrupted, meaning his anxieties flare up. “It can also lead to health anxiety directly in that I worry about dehydration and heatstroke should I be uncomfortably warm for too long,” he says. “Finally sometimes it can feel like there’s no escape when the weather stays persistently warm and you have no opportunity to really cool down and sleep well.”

Depression, anxiety, and any other mental health issues don’t listen to weather reports, and to live with them through the happiest months of the year can be one of the most isolating experiences anyone can go through. 

From marketeers prepping us to be beach body ready before selling us the quintessential Aperol Spritz, to your best mate who posts flawless sun-drenched Insta selfies and beer-drenched festival Snapchat stories, those of us who live with mental health issues in summer can feel adrift and alone. These feelings may not, in isolation, be enough to drive a spike in suicide, as seen in Nature Climate Change’s report from the beginning of this piece, but they can sure make life miserable for someone who lives with them.

So, for those of you with friends who might be struggling in the heatwave, let them know that you’re there for them, whether they want to join you on the lads holiday to Magaluf, or curl up on the sofa with some Fortnite for company.

And for those of you, like me, struggling with their mental health at the moment, know that you are not alone, there are others like you out there, and that just because you’re feeling miserable when others aren’t doesn’t mean you’re an outsider.

Unlike the more well-known winter SAD, there haven’t been many studies into medical treatments for its summer sibling. Anecdotally, those who suffer from it recommend making sure your room is pitch black to counteract the insomnia, keeping cool by carrying around fans and chomping on watermelon, and exercising to tire yourself out and keep your mood up, but as everyone reacts to sun differently, it’s hard to find a common course of action. Speaking to Smithsonian.com, Ian Cook, director of the UCLA Depression Research & Clinic Program, echoed this, recommending that sufferers seek help from their GP to “take it case-by-case and empirically develop a treatment plan for each individual with summer SAD.”

To return to Laura Peters, Advice and Information Service Manager at Rethink Mental Illness, “the most important thing to do if you are struggling with intrusive thoughts is to seek professional help, no matter what the temperature outside is.”

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(Image: Gary Ogden)

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