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Sad in the summer: Why some of us are grumpier these days

caption: A man floats in Lake Washington at Colman Beach, Monday, June 28, 2021, when the National Weather Service recorded a high temperature of 108 degrees in SeaTac, setting an all-time record for the area.
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A man floats in Lake Washington at Colman Beach, Monday, June 28, 2021, when the National Weather Service recorded a high temperature of 108 degrees in SeaTac, setting an all-time record for the area.
Genna Martin for KUOW

Kathryn Smith lives with her husband in West Seattle, in a house with huge windows that let in far more sunlight than she likes. She said the home was designed by an architect to bring in as much light as possible during Seattle’s dark winters.

“In the winter, it is lovely,” Smith said. “I never would’ve imagined I'd live in a place this beautiful that I could see eagles and orcas.”

She dreads summer, however.

Everyone’s heard of winter depression, or SAD. But it turns out: Some people feel better in the winter and worse in the summer.

It’s called summer SAD, or summer depression. About 5% of people experience seasonal depression in either the winter or the summer. The summer kind is less common, but it can be more severe. And as the Pacific Northwest’s summers keep getting hotter and smokier — as we are experiencing — experts expect more people to suffer severe mental health effects.

Summer has become an increasingly difficult time for Smith. When spring comes around, she thinks, “Oh man, I really am not looking forward to the time change and the longer hours and brighter sun, and I don’t sleep as well.”

Smith said she does her best to keep her spirits up in the summer: She still goes on her morning walks and picks up trash on the beach. And in the afternoons, she tries to keep her house as cool and dark as possible.

She finds her summer sadness isolating.

“People want you to go out and socialize and have barbecues,” she said, “but it’s just when it’s so hot, I don’t want to be outside and socialize. And I try not to be a big grump about it, but it makes me kind of grumpy.”

Smith said this summer, she was sleeping only three hours a night and barely eating. Without meaning to, she lost five or six pounds in just a couple of weeks. And then things got really bad.

“I started contemplating suicide, which was — it was scary,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is just weird. Why does the depression seem to hit me in the spring, looking towards the summer?’ And I googled, ‘Can you have seasonal depression in the summer?’ And sure enough, you can.”

She went to her family doctor, who prescribed an antidepressant, and she’s doing better now — though she’s still looking forward to the fall.

“People with summer depression have more thoughts of suicide,” said Norman Rosenthal, the psychiatry professor at Georgetown credited with first describing both winter and summer seasonal depression.

“People with summer depression are more agitated,” he added. “They sleep less, and they eat less, whereas the winter types are more lethargic, and they sleep more and they eat more.”

When temperatures rise, suicide, violence, and ER visits and hospitalizations for mental health conditions also increase.

Shabab Wahid is a global health professor at Georgetown who researches the effect of climate change on mental health. He said mental health conditions that don’t rise to the level of a diagnosis, like irritability and general feelings of sadness, also go up on hot days.

He said people’s mental health is the worst on the hottest days — like during heat waves — and also during sudden changes — like on hot days in the middle of a cool spring.

Heat and air pollution hit the most vulnerable populations the hardest, he added. People who live or work outside, who don’t have access to air conditioning or air purifiers, and who live in urban heat islands without the trees and green space that can cool down a neighborhood are all more likely to suffer mental health effects during hot, smoky days and weeks.

As summers keep getting hotter, and heat waves more frequent and intense, the psychiatry professor Norman Rosenthal said people should be on the lookout for mental health effects.

“It’s going to get worse,” he said. “Even people who don’t get depressed, they’re tired; they’re sweaty; it’s unpleasant. And there’s going to be this kind of prevalent unhappiness.”

But for people like Kathryn Smith, being aware of the problem — and naming it — can be a big part of the solution.

RadioActive Youth Media’s Gavin Muhlfelder and Olivia Asmann contributed to the radio version of this story.

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