“When the sun is shining I can do anything; no mountain is too high, no trouble too difficult to overcome.”
– Wilma Rudolph
With all of the recommendations about sun exposure, it may seem that vampires are the intended audience: Avoid the sun at all costs or face an untimely death.
Recently, there’s been some resistance to such conventional wisdom. In a recent study, researchers found that the risks of avoiding sun exposure are the same as or greater than the risks of smokers who bath in the sunlight. While the rate of skin cancer increased for those with high sun exposure, the life span of those who avoided the sun was two years less than the smokers who spent significant time in sunlight.
Although it’s unlikely people will take to the beach in hopes of a longer lifespan, they might for this: Reduced sun exposure plays a significant role in dampening happiness, cognitive functioning, and cardiovascular health. The reverse is also true. This is in large part due to the way the sunshine stimulates the production of Vitamin D, a major contributor to good health.
Sunshine and Mental Health
Although the air may be thick with pollution, the day excessively hot, and the rain threatening a downpour, it won’t necessarily get you down. So long as there’s enough daylight between sunrise and sunset, your level of distress should remain stable. Take away some of that sunshine time, however, and there’s a good chance your mood will plummet. Notably, this isn’t just for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, but rather with the population at whole.
Mental health treatment centers notice an increase of patients during the winter season, explains Mark Beecher, clinical professor and a licensed psychologist in BYU Counseling and Psychological Services. “Therapists should be aware that winter months will be a time of high demand for their services. With fewer sun time hours, clients will be particularly vulnerable to emotional distress. Preventative measures should be implemented on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
In addition to the stimulation of Vitamin D, sunlight works by prompting certain areas of the retina to release serotonin. A drop in serotonin can lead to SAD, depression, and a variety of other mental health conditions that may warrant a visit to mental health inpatient treatment centers.
Suicide and Sunshine
For all the psychological benefits of sunshine, scientists have long been aware of a surprising statistic: More people commit suicide in the spring when the sun is abundant than in the winter when sunny days are limited. Like prescribed antidepressants, it turns out that the sunshine (a natural antidepressant) can also make some vulnerable people manic. Often associated with bipolar disorder, mania causes boosts of energy, euphoria, agitation, and irritability. The main concern is with people who are suffering from a deep depression. While they experience a boost of energy and irritability from sunshine, the suicidal thoughts remain, thereby increasing the likelihood that a person will commit suicide.
In a recent study, researchers examined nearly 70,000 completed suicides in Austria from 1970 and 2010. They discovered a link between the number of suicides and the number of hours of sunshine during the day; they also found a correlation between the number of hours with sunshine in the days leading up to the suicide and the number of suicides. Specifically, lack of sunshine on the day of suicide and in the 10 days prior seems to increase the chances of a suicide. On the other hand, increased sunshine during the 14 to 60 days prior seemed to decrease the incidence of suicide.
Low serotonin levels in the cerebrospinal fluid plays a role in the number of suicides, irritability, and violence. Sunshine effects serotonin transporter binding. This directly impacts the concentration of serotonin in the synapse. The shifting levels with the changing of seasons may be the most challenging for the brain to handle, leading to changes in behavior and irritability.
The Role of Mental Health Treatment Centers
Fortunately, people who struggle with depression have several options for treatment. Most often, symptoms can be controlled with light therapy (including exposure to sunshine), medications, and psychotherapy. For others, however, the experts at mental health treatment centers is the best option.