cecilia-ford-phdSeasonal affective disorder (SAD), which causes some people to grow depressed during winter months because of the shorter hours of daylight, is a well-known phenomenon. Sufferers can be treated with light therapy, and spring usually brings natural relief to many. For the rest of us, the advent of better weather, longer days, new flowers and renewed energy is commonly a welcome relief.

Not for all, however. For some with SAD, there can be a remission at the end of February or March and then a sudden, acute exacerbation in spring. This may be akin to the phenomenon, quite familiar to mental health professionals, that occurs when a depressed person who is on the road to recovery suddenly commits suicide. The troubled person may look better because he has recovered some of his energy, but his mood is still grim — and his renewed energy then allows him to carry out a suicide plan.

stockholm-lilacIn fact, April is indeed  the “cruellest month” identified by T.S. Eliot, with a slight spike in suicides  (though the week between Christmas and New Year’s is the worst). Again, the “renewed energy” hypothesis is one that’s offered, and I have found the  “comparison factor” to be significant among my patients — as in, when you look at yourself relative to other people. Everyone is cold and miserable and hurrying to get inside in the deepest days of winter. In spring, all of a sudden we are out on display: mothers with new babies, couples holding hands, pretty young girls. As one young woman said to me, “I hate this time of year! There are so many gorgeous girls on the street wearing short skirts. I like nice weather, but it’s not worth it. It just makes me feel more horrible about how fat I feel.”

The comparison factor may also be at work during the holiday blues. You imagine that everyone else is nestled in the warm embrace of a loving family, and you feel isolated in comparison. The longing for contact, and the lack of it, is a serious risk factor in depression (which is why suicide hot lines can be effective). Again, in spring, the envy of others, and the intimacy one imagines between them, can be agonizing. Another patient recounts:

centralparkI remember an incredibly nice Sunday in May. I was walking across Central Park and everyone was out — kids with their parents, friends having picnics, and couples, couples, couples everywhere. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be in a relationship. It was more that I felt so down that I couldn’t ever imagine feeling what any of those people seemed to be feeling: in tune with each other and the world, even in the smallest way. I felt like I was the only one.

This patient’s depression wasn’t precipitated by spring alone, but you can see  in this description how the signs of the season exacerbated it.

Studies of happiness have also pinpointed a comparison factor. In terms of material possessions, for example, people are content if they see themselves as having about the same as those around them. If they see themselves as less well off than their neighbors, they are proportionately less content. Perhaps the current recession will signal that happy times are here again.

Cecilia M. Ford, Ph.D., has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987. Her current areas of focus are chronic illnes and depression, eating disorders and body image disorders, sexuality and relationships, and parenthood and careers. At WVFC, she writes both from her professional expertise and from her deep knowledge and experience with theatre, film, politics and fun.