When Van Badham began to feel as though her world was collapsing, she put it down to the student lifestyle.
“In the beginning I thought I was just hungover, smoking too much, and having too many late nights,” she says.
At the time, she was an exchange student from Wollongong studying in Britain.
She had arrived in January – the middle of the English winter – and by March she realised she had become quite ill. Ten years later, living in Melbourne, she vividly remembers the darkness that hit her at age 22.
“I was this extremely happy, healthy young person having the time of my life on exchange in Sheffield when all of a sudden, I wasn’t having a good time any more,” she says.
“I was suddenly so depressed and thought life was meaningless.” She stopped going to class and doing other things, such as eating, sleeping and socialising with friends. She confined herself to her dorm room, where she lived alone, and suffered through “days and days of darkness”.
“It was vile, the worst experience of my life,” Badham says.
“I was truly suicidal. I didn’t tell anyone, I didn’t call my parents. I just thought it was my fault I was feeling this way, that I was the worst person on earth.”
Particularly perplexing for Badham was the unexpectedness of it all, and being unable to work out why she suddenly felt unlike she ever had before. This went on for eight weeks. It was not until a concerned friend called her that she discovered the cause of her misery.
“I was so weak, I passed out while on the phone to her and she heard me hit the ground,” she says. “She came thundering over and forced me into a cab to go to hospital.” The doctor barely had to examine Badham before making a diagnosis. Vitamin D deficiency. “We get one every year,” the doctor told her.
Australian exchange students, who are blessed with plentiful sunlight and therefore vitamin D, struggle to absorb the same amount of the vitamin once exposed to the darker English climate, which is less conducive to outdoor activity. Badham was put on a short course of antidepressants, forced herself to go outside even when it was snowing, stopped drinking and began eating more vitamin D-rich oily fish. She felt better within two weeks.
“We are a lot more wired to our environment than we think,” she says.
In their efforts to better understand depression and suicide, doctors around the world are exploring the association of environmental factors, such as concentration of sunlight and changes of the season, with mood and behaviour. Vitamin D is just one of the elements being examined as part of this.
In Queensland, researchers from the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention are examining whether seasonal differences in the day-of-the-week pattern of suicide can help identify the most probable timing of such deaths. A senior research fellow from the institute, Dr Chi-kin Law, says this could help improve intervention and prevention efforts.
A study led by Law, and published recently in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found Queensland suicides peaked on a Monday in summer for males, but there was no similar relationship for females.
“Our study also found that there was a significant association between the day-of-the-week pattern with season of the year,” Law says. “In winter, we found that the peak shifted to Thursday and a deeper dip in suicides in winter. However, we have no idea how to explain this phenomenon.”
It may seem odd that some people may feel more driven to suicide in the warmer months of late spring and summer, generally seen as pleasant and more social times of the year. But Law says previous studies had also shown the overall rate of suicide is highest in late spring and summer when compared with other seasons of the year.
“This phenomenon is generally applicable to Queensland,” he says. “We found the number of suicides peaked in summer for males and females living in Brisbane, while females living in other parts of Queensland peaked in spring.”
Meanwhile, there was a dip in suicides on a Saturday every season, Law says, which was most pronounced in winter. While he stressed there was not yet a unique factor or theory to explain this time and seasonal pattern, there were several aspects for researchers to consider.
“From a social aspect, a lower rate of suicide on Saturday is expected as most workers in Queensland and Australia would have their weekend break, and their stress level would be lowered when compared with other days of the week,” he says. “However, come Monday, they would need to face their work stress again and this may have an impact on those who are distressed.
“Further, weather may also play a role here. While winter in Queensland is a pleasure, the seasonal weather in summer is extreme, hot and humid. We suspect the combined effect of both or other factors may contribute, but we need additional evidence to test it.”
But Law says the suicide fluctuation demonstrated in the study indicates to clinicians, volunteers and relatives that there is evidence for “high-risk times” when people may be more vulnerable. “From a public health approach, everyone should pay more attention, time and care if he or she knows anyone who is distressed during this period of time,” he says.
In the US, a doctoral candidate with the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, Jon-Patrick Allem, has been researching links between seasonality and the seeking of mental health information on Google. It is part of a broader project exploring how population health surveillance can be improved by using technology.
The findings from the Google study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine earlier this year, found winter peaks and summer troughs for search queries originating from the US and Australia about various mental health illnesses or problems.
These peaks and troughs were not due to randomness, with the pattern remaining even after taking into consideration alternative explanations, such as trends in the news.
“We described a number of possible explanations for seasonal differences in our paper,” Allem says.
“To name a few, changes in daylight hours influence the circadian system and stimulate physiologic responses that affect mood. Vitamin D has been suggested to play a role in affective disorders. Summer also allows for more outdoor exercise and physical activity, which have been known to influence mental health.”
He says advertisements could be placed on search engines to direct searchers to evidence-based help programs, while monitoring search queries could help make traditional care more responsive.
“Future research could explore the possible biological, environmental and social mechanisms for seasonal patterns in mental illnesses,” he says.
“They could also try and validate our approach by linking clinical diagnoses with search queries.”
Lifeline 13 11 14; MensLine 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.
This article first appeared on Brisbane Times on 25 September, 2013.