Summertime… and the living isn’t easy for everyone. Depression in the summer is more common than you might guess. While many equate summer with school vacation, outdoor camps, water fun, and blooming gardens, others can and do feel depressed during the sunny season—and the social expectation that you’re supposed to have fun can make that depression feel even lonelier and more isolating.
How to Identify Summer Depression
While summer depression shares common symptoms with depression (feeling depressed most of the day, having low energy levels, losing interest in activities you used to enjoy, difficulty concentrating on tasks, and feeling hopeless or worthless), summer depression has specific symptoms that include:
- agitation and restlessness
- loss of appetite
- trouble sleeping (insomnia)
- weight loss
If you feel depressed come June each year and it seems to improve around September, you may be experiencing summer depression. The National Institute of Mental Health indicates a patient may be diagnosed with summertime seasonal affective disorder if they have symptoms of major depression, have lived with depressive episodes in the summer months for two consecutive years, and have a tendency to have depressive periods more frequently in the summer than in than in other times of the year.
Symptoms of summertime blues, by contrast, are similar (low mood and a lack of energy) but less debilitating.
Where Does Summer Depression Come From?
Like all forms of depression, summertime depression can have biological, psychological, and/or environmental causes. Summer schedules are often disruptive to our usual schedules, and this sudden, big change can be hard to handle, especially for people who are vulnerable to depression.
Biologically, some studies suggest that, like other forms of major depressive disorder (MDD), summer depression may be linked to the brain chemical serotonin. The risk of developing summer depression is higher for women, those with relatives with a mental illness, or those who have major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, or another mental illness.
More than 3 million American adults experience seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Of those, about 10% of people who have a MDD with a seasonal pattern, such as SAD, have their depression symptoms begin at the onset of summer, not winter. It’s unclear why this happens to a subset of those with MDD or SAD. Some experts point to too much sunlight, heat, and humidity as possible culprits.
How to Help Your Clients Cope with Summertime Depression
A number of tools and strategies can be employed by mental health practitioners to help their clients cope with summer depression.
- Change dosage. If you are licensed to prescribe medications, consider temporarily increasing the dosage of your client’s medication for depression. Or, if you are not, encourage your client to speak to their medication prescriber about gradually increasing their dosage in late spring and easing off slowly in the fall.
- Respect the worry your client may be feeling. With summer depression in particular, people who are struggling with their mental health are apt to feel something is wrong with them: Why does it seem like everyone else is having fun and I’m not? What’s wrong with me? While this is a typical response, it is not helpful to compare how we’re feeling with how we think we’re supposed to feel. Instead, gently encourage your client to focus on the causes of their summertime depression and how it can be resolved.
- Evaluate triggers. Consider what past experiences your client may be associating with summer, whether it’s the death of a loved one, an important anniversary, or another traumatic event. Working through triggers may lessen or release some of these associations.
- Experiment with darkened rooms. Following some mental health professionals’ theory that too much sunlight could be causing summer-onset MDD, spending more time in darkened rooms—the opposite of light therapy—may be advisable. For similar reasons, wearing sunglasses may help.
- Advocate for regular exercise. Numerous studies demonstrate that regular physical activity can help depression and mood disorders.
- Recommend a good night’s sleep. Insufficient sleep can trigger depression. Rule out this cause by ensuring your client is getting enough ZZZs (generally 7 to 9 hours a night for adults).
- Engage in mindfulness. Yes, there’s that oft-mentioned recommendation to develop a meditation and mindfulness practice again! Evidence shows mindfulness has a significant impact on mental wellbeing, combating fatigue and naturally bolstering one’s defenses against depression.
If you or someone you know thinks they might be depressed, regardless of the time of year, please get help. Do not take summer depression lightly or downplay its symptoms. Talk to a mental health practitioner. We are here to help, and there are effective treatments available. You do not need to suffer in the summer.