August rain: the best of summer gone, and the new fall not yet born. The uneven time.

         —Sylvia Plath (American poet and writer; 1932-1963)

When we think of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), we tend to think of the freezing dark nights of winter leeching feelings of warmth, and joy, from our souls. While typically only 1% of SAD sufferers are affected during the warm weather—the summer blues, known as reverse seasonal affective disorder, is enough of a concern that the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) proclaims September as Suicide Prevention Month.

Indeed, in September 2014 the United States recorded its highest number of deaths by suicides in any month in the preceding 16 years. (Although the number ticked down again in 2015.) A 2014 study conducted in Austria found that factors like the seasonal variation in unemployment rates, weather (high temperatures, uncomfortable humidity, etc.) and availability of clinicians (vacation schedules can make it more difficult to get appointments) contribute to summertime sadness. The study aslo found that suicide attempts are influenced by sunshine. One hypothesis is that as hours of sunlight increase, depressed people have more energy to take their lives.

Other possibilities as to why late August, early September can be a difficult time of year is that this period marks an ending—to warmer weather and unadulterated fun. Simultaneously, it marks a renewal of the period of responsibility, stress, and the approaching frigid temperatures. For those who already experience depression, summer-SAD can be devastating. In these cases certainly, there needs to be an understanding that this disorder is not just a passing “down in the dumps” feeling but a potential indication of major depressive disorder (MDD), which according to 2016 statistics from NIMH, impacts over 16 million people in the United States.

The Difference between Seasonal Affective Disorder and Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder

Psychiatrist Thomas Mehr was the first person to do research that distinguished the two disorders from one another back in 1987. Symptoms of winter-SAD include overeating, oversleeping, isolation and a craving for carbohydrates, while sufferers of summer-SAD experience loss in appetite, insomnia, increased sex drive and agitation. The similarity in both disorders is anxiety and depression. But winter-SAD is the one that is more known, thus more accepted and understood.

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Just knowing that summer-SAD is a real thing can be a comfort to sufferers.

*Nina is comforted to learn that summer-SAD is not her imagination, “If one were to lock me in a sealed closet I could tell you the moment the barometer changes the pressure in my head. Mood changes, ocular and regular migraines, and bad choices. Give me winter. I’m sane, euthymic, wrapped in cashmere and UGGs.”

*Jan’s summer-SAD kicks up every year, like clockwork. She told me during a session, “I was bullied in school, so on the last day of August every year I became almost clinically depressed. Knowing I had to go back was an absolute horror. But I’m 62 – and when I hear on the news ads for Labor Day sales I burst into tears and start writing sad poems: The leaves are withering and so am I. And I have nightmares about falling on the ice and drowning in a hurricane.”

She sighs, “Is there a time limit on childhood seasonal trauma?”

While *Blair wasn’t bullied as a child, she has been struggling emotionally with the waning of summer since her schoolgirl years. “As a kid, I couldn’t articulate it to myself. But I looked forward to summer all year, and in some way gauged every month from how close it was to June. It’s amazing to have those gorgeous summer days when it’s warm in the sun… Then it starts going downhill. And I grieve. There’s a real sadness…”

She continues, “I thought my dread of summer fading was linked to being in school but even after I graduated college, my birthday, which is September 5th, continued feeling bittersweet.”

Joni Mitchell’s song, “Urge for Going” describes this sentiment.

Here are some lyrics:

I awoke today and found the frost perched on the town
it hovered in a frozen sky, then it gobbled summer down
When the sun turns traitor cold
and all trees are shivering in a naked row
I get the urge for going but I never seem to go
…And summertime was falling down and winter was closing in

Treatment Options for Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder: What Can Help?

The sun lamps that are often prescribed for those suffering from vitamin D deficiency likely won’t help you at the end of summer when there is still plenty of sunlight to be absorbing. Counseling and, sometimes, anti-depressants are recommended for those with reverse seasonal affective disorder. Sufficient sleep, exercise, and nutritious eating are obvious, but nonetheless important and effective recommendations. Also, try not to self-attack, as in, “Everyone else had such an amazing summer. I didn’t do anything special.” Jan, who has dreaded this time of year since being bullied in school, plans ahead and books tickets to Florida for the winter. “When the days start shortening in August it helps to be able to tell myself, come November I’ll be on a plane and avoid the worst of the cold and dark.” Having something to look forward to, not to mention busying yourself with active (and joyful) planning of an activity, can help you stay focused and optimistic.

Children and Summer-SAD

Quite a few parents can tell you that children experience reverse seasonal affective disorder. According to Julie Smith, a psychotherapist based in Denver, Colorado, and Portland who specializes in adolescents, “As the days heat up, those with summer-SAD become extremely irritable, sleep less and eat less. They may withdraw from friends and activities. As school draws closer the question, ‘What did you do last summer?’ looms.”

Whether children transmit their sadness to their parents or vice-versa is sometimes hard to figure out. But the moods of the adults and the young people in the house obviously affect one other.

Carlene Macmillan, a clinic director in Brooklyn, New York, definitely notices an uptick in parents arranging appointments for their children in late summer. However, the Harvard-trained psychiatrist feels this rush toward therapy “is usually more directly related to the stress of starting school than seasonal changes – school affective disorder.”

Regardless, Julie Smith has some great suggestions for parents concerned with their children’s mental health as the calendar flips toward fall. It’s essential to take their feelings seriously and help them feel heard.

The therapist suggests, “Ask non-judgmental questions: ‘What do you need?’ If they say, ‘I don’t know,’ say, ‘Can I make a suggestion?’ The important point is to help them start to identify that they have needs and it is okay to share them.”

For adults and children suffering from summer-SAD, here is some welcome relief: This season too shall pass!


*Names have been changed

Last Updated: Sep 11, 2018