Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) might not be the only mental disorder that’s affected by the changing of seasons. A new research study suggests that many mental disorders could have peaks during the winter season.
The study, which is found in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, looks at the number of Google searches in the United States and Australia for all major mental illnesses, and the season when the queries occurred. The data showed that more Google searches happened during the winter than in the summer.
These results could suggest that more people suffer from mental illnesses or an increase in symptoms during the winter months than during summer months, based on searches for more information about mental illnesses during those months via Google.
Major mental illnesses considered in the study include anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, ADHD, anorexia and depression.
Eating disorder (anorexia and bulimia) and schizophrenia queries were some of the more prevalent mental illnesses searched for during the winter (37 percent higher searches in winter than in summer for both). Anxiety was only searched for slightly more often during the winter than in the summer (7 percent higher in winter).
Experts add insight into the study and what it could actually mean in regards to addressing and treating mental illnesses.
Dr. Natalie Azar, an assistant clinical professor of medicine and rheumatology at NYU Langone Medical Center, said in an email that the method of tracking seasonality for mental illnesses could have been accomplished in other ways besides Google.
“I'm not sure the data is that robust when it's through Google searches,” Azar said. “Other ways to determine this might be increases in mental health visits, increase in prescribing practice for anti depressants, anti anxiety agents may also provide useful data.”
The study does note that the methods are not traditional, and because of that, it might be a better way of tracking patterns that otherwise wouldn’t have been noticeable.
She said although the study is interesting, the idea of seasonal differences in mental illnesses isn’t new.
“Seasonal affective disorder has been described in the psychiatric literature for decades,” Azar said. “Depression can exacerbate underlying eating and anxiety disorders, so all are likely to be increased in the winter months.”
She said the results of the study could be used to encourage more screenings for mental illnesses during winter months.
One way to help reduce mental health issues during the winter is to make sure to get enough sun.
Azar suggested that 10 minutes of non-SPF sun exposure a few times a week would be sufficient to prevent vitamin D deficiency.
Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, the author of Set Free to Live Free: Breaking Through the 7 Lies Women Tell Themselves, said in an email that she’s noticed patients with eating disorders and other mental illnesses have an increase in their symptoms during the months from November through March.
“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 said she sees the 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.
“Many people try to live up to the images they have created for their lives, and the stress of trying to live up to unrealistic expectations become too great to bear, leading to alternative unhealthy coping mechanisms.”
She said the study demonstrates that even if people aren’t talking to others about their seasonal mental health issues, they are trying to get help via the Internet.
“They want help, but are often afraid of what others will think of them if their ‘secret’ is out; when in reality being open and honest about their struggles is the primary step in healing, and the one most needed to be conquered,” Dalton-Smith said.
She hopes that the study increases awareness of seasonal mental health issues and encourages people to speak up and get proper help. The study lets people know that there are many others who have similar issues, and they are not alone.
Bakalar, Nicholas. The New York Times. A Seasonal Pattern to Mental Health. Web. April 17, 2013.
Ayers, John W. and Althouse, Benjamin M. et al. Seasonality in Seeking Mental Health Information on Google. The American Journal of Preventative Medicine. April 17, 2013.
Azar, Natalie. Email interview. April 17, 2013.
Dalton-Smith, Saundra. Email interview. April 17, 2013.
Reviewed April 18, 2013
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith