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Summer Loneliness and Mental Health: The Time to Act is Now

Exploring factors behind seasonal variations in mental health and loneliness.

Key points

  • Research indicates that loneliness and psychiatric difficulties increase in spring and summer.
  • Physical variables can play a role in this increase, with factors such as high temperature and high humidity stressing human biology.
  • Social factors are also important, as mental pain can be amplified in summer for people who are socially isolated and missing out on summer fun.
  • In contrast, people tend to experience fewer subjective or objective feelings of missing out during the colder, darker months.

"April is the cruellest month… winter kept us warm." So wrote T.S. Eliot in his famous poem "The Wasteland." Clearly, Mr. Eliot never lived in Canada.

For most people in northern climes, April signifies a transition from a cold, snowy, or rainy winter to a warmer spring and pleasant summer. In normal times, these spring and summer months provide manifold opportunities for socializing and connecting with family and friends—a welcome relief from the long, dark, and gloomy winter months.

This is especially the case given the COVID-19 situation, where lockdowns have caused separation from the people, places, and social activities that give our life purpose and meaning. Now that vaccines are being rolled out and there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, the dawn of spring and the advent of summer can not come soon enough for many people.

Summertime Blues

However, the onset of summer is not good news for everyone. Indeed, an examination of the psychiatric literature indicates that summer can be a particularly difficult time for some people.

For example, several research studies have examined seasonal variation in loneliness, finding (somewhat counter-intuitively) that loneliness tends to be highest in spring and summer. More worryingly, an examination of suicide rates indicates that suicides also tend to be highest in the spring and summer months, and lowest in the colder dark months of November to March.

Similarly, research indicates a rise in other psychiatric difficulties in the spring and summer. For example, inpatient admissions to psychiatric hospitals tend to peak in the summer months, while other research indicates that people with bipolar disorder experience intense manic episodes much more frequently in the spring and summer.

In other words, the spring and summer months are not universally enjoyed by all, and can pose a myriad of mental health risks for some people.

Physical and Biological Factors

There are a variety of explanations accounting for seasonal variation in the above-described mental health issues. Some studies have focused on physical factors such as temperature, humidity, luminosity (i.e. quantity of sunlight), solar radiation, and geomagnetic activity; finding a correlation between summer extremes and poor mental health.

This line of research indicates that summer extremes can stress and disrupt biological functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, circadian rhythms, energy levels, and the release of neurotransmitters, hormones, and endorphins. For some people, this can contribute to a form of chemical imbalance that can have deleterious effects on mental health.

To be sure, these biological factors play a role; however, a growing body of research indicates that the transition to summer can be most difficult for people prone to social isolation, and that this may be a key factor behind increased rates of adverse mental health in the warmer months.

Social and Seasonal Factors

Summer is typically the season for socializing and pursuit of outdoor pleasures. Music festivals, sports tournaments, open-air concerts and the like mainly occur in the summer months. This is also a time when people can easily engage in commonly-enjoyed hobbies such as hiking, fishing, boating, swimming, weekends away, or simply lazing on a beach or in a park. For many people, such hobbies are much better enjoyed in company with friends or family, and may bring little pleasure if pursued alone.

However, some people do not have a large circle of family or friends, perhaps due to onerous work responsibilities, recent relocation, or other reasons. Indeed, YouGov recently surveyed over 1,000 U.S. adults, asking questions about loneliness and isolation, and found that 29 percent of millennials always or often felt lonely and 27 percent had no close friends. The warmer months may be particularly difficult for such people.

By definition, such isolated people may experience summer social festivities as spectators rather than participants. They may receive few invites for barbeques, picnics, or patio drinks, and may be left to attend summer events or pursue summer hobbies alone. This may be mentally painful, given that such individuals may perceive others to be making the most of the summer months. This is not just a "fear of missing out," but a real experience of missing out.

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, winter keeps us all warm, as a large portion of the population tends to stay indoors in relative solitude. In contrast, summer is a time of general social merriment and mirth, which can amplify a sense of isolation and mental pain in those missing out on the fun.

What Can be Done?

Knowledge is power, and a growing body of research indicates that dense and meaningful social connections are good for mental health, and this may be especially potent in the warmer months.

This includes support from family and friends, or involvement in supportive communities such as churches, trade unions, and civic associations. Some new research even suggests that small talk with strangers and retail staff can enhance well-being and mental health.

Individuals can reach out to any or all of the above, making efforts to connect with others as spring turns into summer. By the same token, we can all redouble our efforts to reach out to those in our networks who may be lonely. Of course, social interaction typically benefits the initiator as much as the receiver, resulting in better mental health for all parties concerned.

Let’s all work together to prove T.S. Eliot wrong now that spring has arrived and summer is approaching.

More from Rob Whitley, Ph.D.
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