Sad news for those who suffer from SAD: the condition is probably a myth

Would you rather, at this moment, be standing at a bus stop in the rain, on your way to a job that doesn’t exactly fill you with sheer molten glee, or lying on a sun lounger under a tropical sky with a cold drink in one hand and a hot squeeze in the other? Don’t tell me, I think I can guess.

Do you then think: ‘Ooo, I’ll work really hard for a few more months and then when I get the money to go somewhere nice and hot I’ll really enjoy it!’ or do you think ‘Life’s so unfair. I bet there are people lying on sun loungers under tropical skies right now, and I’m not one of them. And it’s actually making me ill — I’ve got SAD! Right, that’s it, I can’t work!’ And so life becomes a slushy self-fulfilled prophecy.

I’ve always been cynical about seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and now a new study — analysing data from 34,300 participants ranging in age from 18 to 99 and published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science — says it does not exist: ‘Being depressed during winter is not evidence that one is depressed because of winter.’ Using the reliable Patient Health Questionnaire Depression Scale PHQ-8, participants were asked how many times in the past fortnight they had felt symptoms of depression. By noting each person’s location and amount of sunlight exposure during the recorded timescale, doctors found no evidence that lack of rays led to bad days. Summing up, Dr Steven LoBello said: ‘Mental health professionals who treat people with depression should be concerned about their own and their patients’ accurate conceptions about the possible causes of depression… pursuit of treatments based on false causes is unlikely to lead to rapid and durable recoveries.’

I’ve always wondered if SAD was ever diagnosed before the habit of mass travel to warmer climes kicked off, or did we just put our collective shoulder to our collective wheel and accept that rain and cold were as much a part of life as sunshine and warmth? Mark Twain’s line that ‘Comparison is the death of joy’ has rarely been so true as when applied to the SAD Squad. The knowledge that some northern-born souls have the chance to pack up their troubles and head south on a semi-permanent basis gives some self-pitiers many a sleepless night.

It’s all very well to prefer sunshine to rain — who doesn’t? But not getting what we want does not constitute an illness. Freud got a lot wrong but when he said that people needed work and love in order to be happy, he was pretty near right, with a few exceptions — retirement after a lifetime of substantial work also counts, in my book, and there are those singular souls amongst us who are satisfied with solitude. But I think it’s fair to say that those who harp on about the weather generally have very little else going on in their lives and may be particularly lacking in the work and love departments, thus coming to see the mythical place of the sun — rather like losing weight — as some state of grace where everything now loathed about life will miraculously come right. But life doesn’t work that way; we generally have an internal thermostat of happiness which can be altered by our attitude but not by our circumstances. As one study showed, both lottery winners and recent quadriplegics generally return to their pre-life-changing level of happiness in a short period of time. To quote Crowded House, you take the weather with you.

Thinking of the Antipodes, it’s interesting that the ceaseless flow from them to us — from Clive James to Nick Cave, taking in Germaine, Cate and Kylie — tends to be of an intellectual and/or creative nature, while the traffic from us to them tends to be… not. Coming from a big, beautiful, empty suntrap, clever Aussies often seek the dampest, edgiest, most crowded arena they can find, and usually prove to be very pleased with their choice. It’s impossible to imagine Germaine Greer or Clive James ever voluntarily going ‘home’. My friend Mei, an Australian who has lived here for two decades, says: ‘When you’ve got sunshine all the time, it’s just boring. I came here because all the culture I admired was here, and also the history thing… you can just walk across a field, and it’s not just a field, it’s where some historic battle took place! And of course the music. Cold weather makes people creative, because they can’t hang out at the beach all day.’

Of course I have smart friends who fancy living in warmer climes, but they’re also enjoying life where they are; when it comes to actual claims of SAD, though, I can’t help thinking that these types wouldn’t be the life and soul of the party anywhere. They evoke a similar impatience in me as do the scores of bores who claim food allergies — while 30 per cent of the population believes that they have a food allergy, the actual stat is around five per cent. So many people want to be ‘special’ and can’t be bothered to work for it — even becoming a reality star takes a bit of effort — and by claiming allergies they become briefly a legend in their own gluten-intolerant, lactose-unfriendly boring old lunchtime. It’s showbiz for saps.

In my opinion, people who have SAD aren’t sick but rather simply sad that they’re not living some lotus-eating life in the sunshine, and don’t want to admit it as people might tell them to get over it. Having had the person I loved most in all the world suffer for a decade and eventually die because of actual clinical depression, I feel that if a low mood is circumstantial, if it can be dispelled by a change of scene, or by a new dress, or by things going your way, it’s likely that what you’re feeling is not depression but lack of perspective and a surfeit of self-obsession. In which case, take your vitamin D and volunteer to do something for others less fortunate than you. You’ll cheer up in no time — unless, perhaps, you don’t want to. Because it’s not so ‘special’ being happy, is it?


  • ALH

    A child in my daughter’s year is now without a mother, because she killed herself on the shortest day. There are hundreds of such cases and thousands of people who lose the will to live in the winter even if they don’t act on it. The very idea of the pagan festival of Yule, and after that Christmas coming when it does is to help us get through the misery that December darkness brings. I remember it well, growing up in a house with no electricity and only paraffin lamps and candles for light. And after I was grown up and my children were 2 and 4 sitting I remember sitting on the stairs having put up a garland and thinking the children’s father would be home with the Christmas tree in a few minutes and while they were all distracted I could nip out and drown myself in the river. Don’t dismiss it as a form of self indulgence, even though it is, in a way. You should know better than to make light of such destructive self loathing.

    Calling it SAD is helpful because even if this research is right sufferers can still give themselves the message of hope that their depression will get better with the spring. If you take even that forlorn hope away, what are you leaving people to cling to?

    • vieuxceps2

      In Finland it is accepted that people suffer during the long nights of winter fronm a depressive condition.They do not call it SAD but there is a Finnish word for it .. It is also known in Denmark and in Scandinavia generally that people are different in winter from summer. I have no science to explain this,I’m just sayng what I learnt whilst travelling up there. Maybe “SAD” does exist then?

      • Sue Smith

        What do you think books, great films and classical music were invented for? This article only shows me the dark night of the soul for an entire demographic that has abandoned great art and a belief in anything external to the self. SAD indeed.

        • ALH

          http://youtu.be/95XBbD8Xss4

          Sometimes those long dark evenings of the soul are turned into beautiful music.

          • Sue Smith

            Agreed! And I also thinking about Sibelius.

  • jeremy Morfey

    Wrong time of the month, is it?

    We have the word of a rather silly and overpromoted columnist to go against all human observation and tell us it’s not normal to feel sleepy when it’s dark. She’ll be telling us there’s no such thing as male and female next.

    When it’s dark all the time, I go into hibernation mode and need a good blast of bright blue sunshine to wake up. It’s called the melotonin response. A constant state of drowsiness is remarkably similar to depression, especially when nothing much gets done and people are passing judgements.

    Wasn’t one reason the Vikings were such eager travellers was because they got fed up with long winter nights without some fresh stories to tell?

  • Alex

    It’s a matter of semantics really whether you call it a “disease” or not. As the article says, darkness tends to make everyone somewhat more miserable than if the sun were shining – remembering that we do get both in Britain, so the foreign holiday stuff is a red herring.

    As far as I can tell, it’s why the Irish, Scottish, often the English, Scandinavians, Germans, Poles and Russians are famed for their hard drinking. I also believe that the heat of the days explains why equatorial countries are so much more prone to instability than cold ones.

    It’s not so much that SAD doesn’t exist, in my view: it’s more that everyone has it (and it is by that token it cannot really be “a disease”). I agree of course that it is not the sort of complaint that entitles you to disability benefits or days off work or whatever.

    I “have SAD” myself, and I can say there is definitely something to it. This winter has been nice and bright, but usually when the first real sun comes out in March it feels for a couple of days like I’m on pills. It’s very much biological and I can feel my brain circuitry humming. It’s not surprising; of course we know our bodies produce melatonin when it’s dark so at the very least you can expect to feel sluggish in the winter.

  • Sue Smith

    Reality check folks!! War-torn countries, privation, destitution, rape, starvation, violence, natural disaster, economic ruin, poor health. Count yourselves very lucky you are not amongst this group!! And repeat after me, ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I”.

    • Jesus H Corbyn

      easy for you to say – SAD doesn’t exist in Australia. try living in Britain

      • Sue Smith

        Don’t worry, we have our own demographic of empty SADs here too. And I won’t try living in Britain, if you don’t mind. Now that it has culturally altered way beyond what I knew in 1971 when I was last there, I’ll never set foot on British soil again.

        I know London is still regarded as a cultural capital in the world – at least in terms of classical music, opera, theatre and ballet – but that still isn’t enough to get me there!! I’d take Vienna any day – or, at least, I did until last year. Sadly, never again.

        • Jesus H Corbyn

          typical of a Kipper to turn a thread about seasonal weather into a bigotted hate-fueled anti-refugee tirade

          still smarting after Tony Abbott’s ignominious toppling? HA HA!

          • Sue Smith

            It is you who have the problem. I think we will have the last laugh. Our High Court, just 2 hours ago, overturned a challenge from the legal oligarchs in this country to have off-shore processing of ‘asylum seekers’ declared illegal. Yes!!!

            We’re no mugs here; we look at you all over there and know you’re just going to get more of the same.

            And ‘sticks and stones’…. Sadly, this is the only counter-argument you’ve ever got.

          • Jesus H Corbyn

            persoanlly I like living in a vibrant multicultural country instead of a mosquito infested wasteland where everybody is white except for the poor aborigines who you have segregated and persecuted

            did you ever pay reparations to the Abos? I doubt it. You’re an even more racist country than the USA

          • Sue Smith

            As is your right. But what an unhappy, venom-ridden individual you are. Again, you’ve got no counter argument except bile – very sadly for you. I’ll bet you clear rooms the minute you walk into one. Chin up.

          • Jesus H Corbyn

            you sound more than a little bit hysterical – what counter argument is there to your vile racism?

            did you vote for Abbott?

          • Sue Smith

            You are the cynosure of evil. Go away.

          • Mary Ann

            Have you tried reading Australian history not from the point of view of white men, try this

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_massacres_of_Indigenous_Australians

            Not the sort of country that should be telling us how to treat the rest of the human race.

          • Mr B J Mann

            Aren’t you British? I thought the white men who went over there and massacred the natives were the British?!

          • Mary Ann

            My hubby was brought up in Australia, he left when he was about 20 to come to Britain, he couldn’t stand the racism. Got fed up with people taking a swing at him because he had a British accent, didn’t think much of the way they were treating the natives either, still murdering them in the 20th Century.

          • Mr B J Mann

            How old was he when he left Britain? 19? Schoolkids usually start losing their accent within months!

    • Mary Ann

      Never though I would agree with you, we just don’t realise how lucky we are to have been born British with all our built in advantages.

  • sfin

    This article both hits and misses in my opinion.

    Hits: Depression, in isolation, is not a “disease” that can be physically cured – especially not by ‘happy’ pills. ‘Seasonal’ environments encourage creativity – I think the history of western civilisation bears this out.

    Misses: Depression associated with low light, poor weather seasons “doesn’t exist”. I think this is wrong – it is a natural state and serves as both a focus for human creativity (Christmas, generally sees us sticking two fingers up to nature and gorging on plenty in our, man made, warm habitats) and also a counter reference for ‘happiness’. By my last, I mean that in order to really appreciate, we need a negative reference to measure our appreciation by. For example, I was in Tuscany last summer and, after about two weeks, the non stop, staggering beauty of every vista or building, or work of art, or meal on a plate, or passers by…had me: a) wondering where Tuscans go on their holidays…and b) hankering for a little industrial decay – or maybe a little light graffiti. Paris, where I live, delights in that you can be walking down a path of urban squalor and turn the corner to be greeted by something – a building, a scene, a smell from a café, a beautiful woman – that lifts the spirit.

    We need contrasts in our lives – and in the right balance.

  • rtj1211

    Whatever you want to call it, I lived in Glasgow for 6 years as a young man and I noticed that I was becoming like a polar bear in terms of my seasonal sleep patterns – more than normal in the winter and less in the summer. It wasn’t a depression, maybe it wasn’t a ‘disorder’, but it was a physiological response/adaptation to the very short winter days to be found in Scotland.

    if scientists don’t want to believe that data, more fool them. As soon as I moved back down south again in 1993, the sleep patterns returned to how they had been growing up in SE England.

    If that isn’t definitive evidence, I don’t know what is.

    The physiological adaptational responses occur and if scientists and the media have to lie about that, the sooner they are all sacked, the better.

    Whatever you want to call it, call it. But don’t say that physiological adaptation doesn’t take place. Ever……

  • Guess why it is called “Seasonal Affective Disorder” ?
    January, February & March are the worst times of the year for depression & SAD

    Boosting both your Vitamin D and your Omega-3 might help

    Read more about this in the blog at: “GreenVits”

    .

  • badu

    I’ve always been cynical about seasonal affective disorder (SAD)….

    I was too until caught wholly by surprise when managing to alleviate the permanent depression revealed that I had SAD symptoms all the year round. I used to call it “hibernation syndrome” because my body felt like it was stuck in that phase.

    It’s really a metabolic shift. Many people get it-for example, they find every year by Winter, that they’ve gone up by 7lbs-which goes of its own accord too by the change of season. Look closely and you’ll see its called seasonal affective disorder not seasonal depression.

    Depression, though essentially a sound categorization, has been breached by being thrown around excessively. What this study has “discovered” is the incompetence of crude checklist diagnosis and desire to hype everything to maximum drama.

  • Morbidly

    I am the opposite, I love it when the clocks go back to normal and it’s dark by 5pm. People rush home and stay indoors, it’s too cold and wet for them. The only thing missing for me is a proper fire and then it would be perfect.
    Come the UKs four week, intensely hot and uncomfortable summer though; and by day 3 I could happily murder the screaming kids, those that are always barbecuing and everyone that takes their ASB outside.

  • Eva Dense

    A more reasoned analysis: http://www.nhs.uk/news/2016/01January/Pages/Seasonal-affective-disorder-may-be-a-myth-study-argues.aspx

    First issue: it is cross-sectional i.e. data collected at one period of time in one go. These people weren’t followed up. Two weeks isn’t bad, but it’s not perfect for data collection on SAD. These kind of studies cannot prove/ provide evidence supporting or denying cause and effect.

    Second issue: “Depression was not a clinical diagnosis – it was based on the participant’s response to a questionnaire over the phone.” – if the questionnaire used is not sufficient to diagnose depression, to say they ‘are not depressed’ off the back of it is a falsehood. The scale gives only a ‘rough guide’ to depression severity; not good enough if this is to be clinically relevant research.

    Third issue: Sunlight exposure wasn’t measured per participant, it was measured at the latitude according to data from the US Navy Observatory. So the depressed participants still may not be getting as much sun exposure, irrespective of daylight hours etc. if they are more prone to living isolated lives in low light settings, SAD pathophysiology may still be at play. There is good evidence that SAD patients have different neurobiology and can be treated effectively with antidepressants (n.b. Cochrane Reviews are much more ‘respected’ that single research articles – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26558418)

    This is an incomplete list of problems with this study. Rather than bickering over this poorly evidenced article, if you are interested, read the actual paper here: http://cpx.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/01/18/2167702615615867.full.pdf+html

    Here are other interesting articles RE neurobiology of SAD:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26994750 – serotonin receptor expression in patients with SAD is higher in winter versus controls
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25270233 – vitamin D levels and skin pigmentation likely play a role in SAD pathophysiology
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24121062 – retinal function may be impaired in patients with SAD

    ‘May’ is a recurrent theme, of course. But SAD is a framework for studying the underlying pathology. There is overwhelming evidence season and light exposure can influence mental health, and SAD is a good way of grouping multiple pathological mechanisms that we still don’t fully understand. To say it doesn’t exist because of one poorly designed study isn’t fair.