Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, according to Mayo Clinic.
When my mother was growing up in Michigan, her aunt had what used to be termed a "nervous breakdown" in the middle of the winter for several years in a row. The one year she didn't, she had spent the winter in Florida. She moved to a tropical locale and the breakdowns stopped.
Today those winter blues are known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and people recognize many of its common symptoms, including lethargy, excessive sleeping, carb cravings, weight gain and sadness. SAD affects approximately 4 to 6 percent of the population and usually is treated with phototherapy, psychotherapy and medication.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), however, approximately 10 percent of all SAD cases are Reverse SAD (RSAD), which means summer causes symptoms. Like the winter version, it can cause sadness, but many other symptoms are very different. RSAD causes agitation or excessive energy, diminished appetite, weight loss, insomnia, an increased sex drive and, in the worst cases, suicidal tendencies. SAD has been linked to a lack of sunlight, but researchers have not shown the bright light of summer to be an issue with RSAD.
Writer and former Gambit contributor Scott Gold diagnosed himself with SAD in 2010, after moving to New York and living in a "garden-level" (or mostly below-ground-level) apartment. He treated himself with light therapy and his symptoms disappeared — until he spent his first summer back in New Orleans.
"I was sleeping too much, drinking too much, eating terrible food, and I just felt gross all the time," Gold says. "It was the exact same feeling [as SAD], but in summer and in cutoffs."
High temperature in both body and environment may be a factor, according to Dr. Thomas Wehr, a research psychiatrist. After first identifying SAD in 1984, Wehr and his team worked on RSAD at the request of sufferers. Knowing that people with severe depression tend to have higher temperatures at night, while nighttime temperatures mostly drop in healthy people, Wehr tried manipulating RSAD patients' temperatures via cooling treatments. It worked, but as soon as the patients walked into summer heat, their depression returned.
Wayne Phillips, curator of costumes and textiles at Louisiana State Museum, experiences this feeling every time he steps outside during the summer. He has self-diagnosed RSAD and especially dreads warmer months because he doesn't own a car.
"The reason [the heat] affects me in particular is because I live and work in the French Quarter and I walk or bike everywhere," he says. "Just getting from one place to another becomes an unpleasant experience. ... I notice I feel lower and more melancholy, almost like my life is on hold."
As far as environmental temperatures being a factor in RSAD, The New York Times reported that epidemiological data in the United States shows a higher proportion of people in the South are depressed in the summer and that the proportion rises as the latitude drops. Psychology Today notes the same phenomena, while Dr. Ian A. Cook, the director of the UCLA Depression Research Program, says studies have shown that in countries near the equator, such as India, RSAD is more common than SAD.
Thomas Fewer, director of The New Orleans Counseling Center, says the intensity of New Orleans' heat can exacerbate his clients' mental health issues, including anxiety or mood instability. Not only can the stress of heat trigger preexisting conditions, it can affect the rate at which the body metabolizes medications.
"Psychiatrists have said numerous times that clients who spend time in the heat [will] sweat out particular medications, which cause the medications to not last as long throughout the day," Fewer says.
Though exposure to full-spectrum light is a treatment for SAD patients, less is known about treating RSAD. Many people with RSAD have come up with solutions themselves. Phillips relies on exercise to keep his mood stable, working out indoors during the summer months. Gold takes a 30-minute walk as soon as he wakes up, before temperatures start to rise.
What else can people do to alleviate the symptoms of RSAD? Many people plan trips to cooler, more overcast places in the summer. Cook also lists some suggestions on WebMD. One is that if people feel depression coming on, they should address it early, even if they think it will end in September. In some cases, it could evolve into a more long-lasting bout of the condition. Also, since people know summer is coming, they should plan ways to reduce stress, he says.
Cook recommends people get to bed on time and exercise regularly as both help with depression, but warns against overdoing dieting and fitness, which can lead to stress. Finally, people should consider taking or adjusting medication so they can better deal with summer depression.
One thing that helps Phillips is looking at the bright side.
"I absolutely adore and am in love with this city, so I try to make the best of it," he says. "I do what I can to keep my mood light in the summertime."
— Additional reporting by Missy Wilkinson