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Hidden Faces

The science behind springtime sadness

Christian Sterk
Source: Christian Sterk

It seems counterintuitive: Sadness in the spring as flowers bloom and temperatures rise. Yet, paradoxically, the time of year many yearn for can come attached to some serious psychopathology.

For years, conjecture about this conundrum centered around raised and then dashed expectations. I mean, after all, what could be better than the return of sun and sand?

Not so fast.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicides spike during springtime, not during the winter holiday season as many have come to believe (Migala, 2016).

What’s going on?

Increasingly, scientific explanations have come to the fore. In her Psychology Today piece “When Spring Brings You Down,” Linda Wasmer Andrews points to the simultaneous forces of allergies and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), saying “Springtime pollen allergies may leave you both sneezy and grumpy. Several studies have now shown a link between allergies and depression.” She goes on to point to the correlation between “pollen period” and rates of suicide.

On the SAD side of the ledger, Wasmer Andrews explains, “Rain or shine, some people find the weather depressing. A recent study led by researchers at Utrecht University looked at different patterns of mood in response to weather conditions. One group, dubbed Summer Haters, felt in a worse mood as the weather got warmer and sunnier. The researchers speculated that Summer Haters might be at risk for a condition sometimes referred to as reverse SAD” (Wasmer Andrews, 2012).

The Mayo Clinic says, “Seasonal affective disorder … is a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons – SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you're like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer” (Mayo Clinic, 2017).

Those falling into that latter category account for approximately 10 percent of sufferers, according to a 2014 piece for Everyday Health by Therese Borchard, founder of Project Beyond Blue. She also adds “memories” to the list of ailments come springtime “because the spring months hold so many milestones, like graduations and weddings. We look back with nostalgia or regret or with unfulfilled dreams and desires” (Borchard, 2014).

Regardless of the exact ingredients in this toxic stew, it is clear that many adults and young people are suffering. Indeed, in April 2016 the CDC revealed that the suicide rate in the United States “surged” to a near 30-year high. In total, more than 40,000 took their lives in 2014 as compared to about 30,000 in 1999. It also noted that suicides among girls ages 10 to14 tripled during the same time period (Tavernise, 2016).

In a January 2017 column, “A Moment in Time, I shared that “a November 2016 cover story in TIME magazine, ‘Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright,’ states, ‘Adolescents today have a reputation for being more fragile, less resilient, and more overwhelmed than their parents were when they were growing up. Sometimes they’re called spoiled or coddled or helicoptered. But a closer look paints a far more heartbreaking portrait of why young people are suffering. Anxiety and depression in high school kids have been on the rise since 2012 after several years of stability. It’s a phenomenon that cuts across all demographics—suburban, urban, and rural; those who are college bound and those who aren’t. Family financial stress can exacerbate these issues, and studies show that girls are more at risk than boys’” (Schrobsdorff, 2016).

The WebMD article “Tips for Summer Depression - School’s Out. It’s Hot. And You’re Not Having Any Fun” provides fair warning that depression may not dissipate with the change of seasons. It offers, “For some people, summer depression has a biological cause, says Ian A. Cook, MD, the director of the Depression Research Program at UCLA. For others, the particular stresses of summer can pile up and make them feel miserable.” Among the stressors cited are disrupted schedules, body image issues and, simply, the heat (Griffin, 2017).

While a massive destigmatization of mental health issues may indeed have appeared on the American landscape, as suggested by the pithy New York Times piece “I'm Not O.K. Neither Are You. Who Cares?” (Alford, 2017), the fact remains that many young people simply engage in a “façade of normalcy,” believing they need to appear to be what they are not.

On that score, Michael Lesser, M.D., a psychiatrist, former medical director of the New York City Department of Mental Health, and current executive director of Medical and Mental Health at RANE (Risk Assistance Network & Exchange), told me for a 2016 Huffington Post piece, “Stigma, even today in the U.S., remains a huge barrier for adolescents and their parents to seek timely and effective treatment for depression” (Wallace, 2016).

A case in point can be found in the story of former Syracuse University offensive tackle Jonathan Meldrum, who told The Atlantic magazine about his recurring depression. “During my sophomore year, I got so I wasn’t able to control my ups and downs … I dreaded waking up. My body would ache. I felt physically sick. It was very hard, as a man playing D1 football, to go to somebody and say ‘I’m having a hard time’” (Flanagan, 2014).

So, what can we do?

According to author Ross Szabo, whom I heard speak at the 2017 annual conference of the American Camp Association, we need to do a better job teaching kids the meaning of words and the differences between feeling depressed and having clinical depression. He said, “Mental health, like physical health, needs to be nurtured, grown, focused upon.”

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), a recipient of a 2017 Change Maker Award from the Child Mind Institute and a collaborator at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), offers, “Symptoms of mental health problems can include change in habits, withdrawal, decreased social and academic functioning, erratic or changed behavior, and increased physical complaints” (Whelley et al, 2004). NASP suggests that mental health professionals be contacted when symptoms first appear or change in frequency, presentation or intensity; persist for a prolonged period of time; continue unchanged despite classroom and parental intervention; cause disruption in the student’s academic and social behavior and in the classroom; become too difficult for the student to control; and present a danger to others or to the afflicted student.

Hopefully help is on the way – even if the suffering is carefully hidden behind what Szabo calls “happy faces.”


Alford, H. (2017). I’m not O.K. Neither are you. Who cares? The New York Times. March 11, 2017. (24 April 2017).

Borchard, T. (2014). April is the cruelest month: why people get depressed and anxious in the spring. Emotional Health. Everyday Health Media.… (24 April 2017).

Borchard, T. (2015). Join “Faith & Depression” on project beyond blue! Therese Borchard. Project Beyond Blue. January 10, 2015.… (24 April 2017).

Flanagan, L. (2014). When college athletes face depression. The Atlantic. March 21, 2014.… (24 April 2017).

Griffin, R.M. (2017). Tips for summer depression. WebMD. February 9, 2017. (24 April 2017).

Mayo Clinic. (2017). Seasonal affect disorder. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER).… (24 April 2017).

Migala, J. (2016). Blue season? Suicide rates rise in spring. Health. May 16, 2016. (24 April 2017).

NASP. (2017). Prevention and wellness promotion. National Association of School Psychologists.… (24 April 2017).

Schrobsdorff, S. (2016). Teen depression and anxiety: why the kids are not alright. TIME. October 27, 2016. (24 April 2017).

Szabo, R. (2017). An honest, humorous & relatable approach to mental health. Ross Szabo. Top Youth Speakers. (24 April 2017).

Tavernise, S. (2016). U.S. suicide rate surges to a 30-year high. The New York Times. April 22, 2016.… (24 April 2017).

Wallace, S. (2017). A moment in time. Psychology Today. January 1, 2017.… (24 April 2017).

Wallace, S. (2016). Dancing in the dark. The Huffington Post. April 6, 2017.… (24 April 2017).

Wallace, S. (2015). Young people, not alone in their despair. Psychology Today. June 17, 2015.… (24 April 2017).

Wasmer Andrews, L. (2012). When spring brings you down. Psychology Today. March 28, 2012.… (24 April 2017).

Whelley, P., Cash, R. and D. Bryson. (2004). Children’s mental health: information for educators. National Association of School Psychologists.… (24 April 2017).

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