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A Seasonal Depression? Humbug, Say Scientists

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page D01

There may be a lot of disasters this holiday season, but suicide, it turns out, is not likely to be one of them.

This is counterintuitive, since we associate Christmastime with loneliness, and we assume people's moods match the bleak weather. We hear about Swedes getting depressed without daylight. During holiday parties, people seem reckless and itchy, like they've got some seasonal rash. They flirt too much and their spouses get mad and Dave from IT tells the boss what he thinks of that flashing light-bulb tie. Dave goes home a little tipsy, tracking pine needles across his mom's basement. Three years without a New Year's Eve kiss.

These are the makings of what one psychiatrist calls the myth of the "red-and-green blues."

The fact is, people are less likely to commit suicide in the winter than they are in the spring and early summer, when suicide rates are highest. Part of this may have to do with the enervation of these cold, dark days, says Norman E. Rosenthal, a psychiatrist who researches how seasons affect moods. He says many a depressed person has told him, during winter months, "You know, I felt like killing myself but just couldn't muster up the energy."

Huzzah for a small triumph in a dreary season. There's so much else wrong with winter. There is the stress of last-minute airport shopping. You give an IH Washington, D.C. T-shirt and you get vanilla bath soaps in return. You get your credit card bill and don't dare open it. Your clothes become tight and you go out to dinner in velvet sweat pants, feeling like one of those women who's given up.

In the mornings, you scratch ice off the windshield with an empty CD case, since you never can find that stupid ice scraper. Your one warm hat is wool and your forehead is pink from itching. You leave your ChapStick in your other coat and your lips burn all day. Your office is being run by some number two who wants everyone to have lunch together, in the spirit of the season. He is chipper. You despise him.

For as long as there's been holiday cheer, there have been sour-faced rebels. And anyone who is far from family or who has lost family knows how hard this season can be. But loneliness does not necessarily translate into clinical depression. There are a whole host of other forces at work and it turns out one of these forces is the natural world.

(Not only the natural world, by the way, but perhaps the human calendar, too. In her book "Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide," Kay Redfield Jamison writes that there has been a rise in suicides on Mondays.)

"We get very far removed from thinking of ourselves as mammals, but we are first and foremost that," says Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who has written extensively about depression and bipolar disorder. Light and heat may affect mood, she says, which could help explain why in centuries past, suicide rates peaked even more dramatically in spring and summer. Artificial light and the ability to heat and cool our environments may have caused what one scholar has called "deseasonalization."

Jamison and Rosenthal say they and other psychiatrists have observed that their patients are often most dangerous to themselves not when they're in the trough of their depression but when they're starting to climb out.

"You get this terrible agitation, this kind of wired, horrible restlessness coupled with a depressed mood," Jamison says. The theory is that in the warmer months, people become more energetic and therefore more able to act on any suicidal impulses they may have.

Spring is the push and pull. Rosenthal says it makes him think of a line from an Emily Dickinson poem, in which she describes spring as: "A Hurry with a lingering, mixed."

January has all of the lingering and none of the hurry. It is the month of disappointment. Everything needs to be disassembled, packed away. Everyone goes home (when they can -- flights are delayed). The tree goes out with the trash; the vacuum comes out. Some poor schlub (your husband) has to go up on the roof and take the icicle lights down. The puppy that the kids were so excited about is less exciting now that his main activities are revealed to be eating and defecating. And guess who winds up high-stepping through the snow with a plastic bag in her pocket? That's right. You. Feeling perhaps more homicidal then suicidal.

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