Seasonal 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.

In 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:

I 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.

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  • Manny Sinagra April 9, 2012 at 2:28 am

    For a long time, I thought it was just me. When I told people I was not understood. However, I feel it. March-April is a a downer for me.

  • Cecilia Ford April 5, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    we have the exact same name only your expertice is what I need/wish I had. I’m currently diagnosed as being in a state of situational depression due to my same-sex separation from my wife of three years who’s infidelity and symptoms of schizoid affected disorder, multiple personalities, multiple psychotic disorders and more. My years on earth are 61…of which 37 yrs have been as an elem PE public school teacher. 1 and 1/2 yrs before marrying, I found my lesbian lover of 5 yrs dead from an assumed asthma/heart attack. Homophobic Family never told me where or when her services were. I read it in paper the day before. At the services the proceeding preacher literally pick up his podium and turned it from the church full of gays to face the 4 rows of family and proceeded. I was never acknowledged or giving opportunity to speak. Some friends say I’ve never recovered from that and it’s why my depression is so severe now. I personally feel I’m ok but symptoms say otherwise…was given by local psychologist today Prozac and wellbutrin. I’m usually full of life and fun. I’ve had a sleep apnea test 2 dys ago. Been falling asleep last 4 months at drop of hat like sleep narcolepsy is present, even in front kids…not good as well as behind the wheel. Waiting for divorce proceedings to finalize since our separation Aug 2011. No previous mental problems or substance abuse yet feel now that I’m loosing it or have lost it…any coping advice!?!?

  • Daniel Huffman March 25, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    I have often thought of my spring depression as being related to the fact that, for most of my life, spring is a time of endings. I’m thirty, and I’ve spent the most of my life in school. When spring came around that meant it was nearly time for school to end. A time for me to abandon the familiar and happy learning environment, a time when I would be separated from my friends, and, later in life, a time when I’d have to move yet again from one dorm to another, one apartment to the next. Spring has always had this connection to turnover and upheaval and insecurity. I am in a more stable position in life now, but I imagine that those patterns continue to exert their influence, having been a part of my life for so long.

  • JM Craven April 17, 2011 at 8:55 am

    I’m thinking I would like to chat with some others who are experiencing depression at the beginning of spring. I feel like I’m being bombarded with things that need to be done (yard work, house work, etc) that I am overwhelmed. My husband does not take an interest in the yard, etc. He mows and that’s it. It’s like he doesn’t know that there are other things that need to be done; and if I mention it, he ends up being negative about it. I really want to take an interest in myself, my house, etc. but I just feel why should I? I’m 64 and have been married for 45 years. Nothing is going to change. I know I need to focus on myself but when I do I want to change everything. I feel stuck!