In the previous blog article I was writing about Screen Time, and to attempt to segue that subject into this next article I want to rely on everyone’s history with screen time (and if you’re younger, your screen time savvy) to bring up Bob Ross. Remember him? The “happy little trees” guy with the perm on PBS, teaching us all how to paint. I saw an article on Mr. Ross recently that mentioned some fun facts about the artist, including that he never asked for any pay from PBS for his work, that he did over 400 paintings on that show, that he received (in one source) up to 200 fan letters a day at times, and that if a regular writer of those letters went silent that Mr. Ross would call them up to check-in on them. Awesome, right? It was this last factoid that drew my attention, and it’s the jump off point for this blog.
I’ve spent more than half of my career so far in mental health regularly operating as a crisis responder, and it’s pretty well known among crisis workers that the Spring is, maybe surprisingly, a difficult time for a lot of people. In fact, there have been several widely publicized suicides already this past week. We crisis workers and therapists know to expect an increase in calls, an increase in suicidal reports and behavior amongst our clients and communities, and an increase in general unhappiness for our struggling clients. This trend is also identified and the nationwide statistics easily found online. In my experience, this trend often surprises people when we talk about it, and I wanted to bring some attention to this problem.
If you and I have had a conversation about this in person, then you have likely heard my theory about why this is. While it is just a theory, and not scientifically tested, I think it still holds some water. Simply put, when the weather warms up and the majority of the population ceases their hibernating habits and begins the ramp up in activity levels that Spring and Summer are so well known for, those with mental illness don’t necessarily rise with them, leading to a building sense of the seriousness of their impairments and disparity between themselves and “the norm.”
During the Fall and Winter months, there is an increase in synchronicity between the daily habits of an individual without clinical depression or clinical anxiety and those of a person with that concern. For example, in the winter, probably both kinds of people are spending a lot more time indoors, both are bemoaning the cold, both spend more time in bed, more time on the couch, both are likely to spend their time staying home, and so on. Accordingly, if you are a person with clinical depression, you may look around during the winter months and feel more akin to your fellow citizenry, less different, less of an outlier; and as such, less depressed or impaired by your anxiety. And then Spring comes. All of those people acting just like you are now starting to be out more, smile more, travel more, go to farmers markets, go to parks, walk around the streets, and plan more activities. Suddenly now you don’t feel so similar, and it can become a lot more apparent that maybe you aren’t like the rest of the people you might see day to day. This is the depression talking, or the anxiety talking, but it can be hard to not listen.
There is a lot of research out there that supports the idea of social conformity, the idea that we have an internal drive to match attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms. The inverse of this is social non-conformity, a sensation all of us have felt at times I’m sure, and one that is identified as being often uncomfortable. Imagine being the only person to show up to a party that didn’t know it was a costume party, or being that person trying to walk one way on a sidewalk when everyone else is going the opposite direction. In our situation with the seasons, it is the realization that the way you feel, the drive you have to do things, the thoughts you say out loud or in your head no longer seem “normal” like they may have felt a month ago.
Clearly there is a problem here. It’s a problem known to the healthcare community and emergency response communities that choose to acknowledge it, and there are initiatives and interventions being put in place every year to combat this trend. Supporting those when they come up is helpful, and yet this isn’t the purpose exactly of this blog. I want to provide an action step, just like with the last blog (and those to come) that is individual, that connects to your mental health, and to that of others.
I want to come back to Bob Ross and what we can take from his example. And no, I don’t mean for you to go out now and paint happy little trees on gleeful little mountains with ecstatic little birds on them, probably only Bob could really pull that off. Rather, take a minute to think about those in your circle. Think of your friends, your family members, the people that are regular parts of your life. Maybe it’s the cashier at the convenience store you see every morning, or your coworker, or your neighbor, or that friend you made at the dog park. Have you seen them lately? Do you have a friend who seems to continue to turn down offers to hang out or join you and others lately? Who haven’t you heard from lately that you used to hear from regularly? Have you checked-in with them since it started warming up? And would it hurt you to drop them a quick message or phone call? Maybe they’re just busy, and maybe they’re starting to feel like the world is shifting and leaving them behind.
The magnifier of hopelessness is feeling alone as well. When we care about others, we have the individual power and mandate to not leave them behind, even if unintentionally. We are stronger together and sometimes we need to remind others that we are still with them, still part of their strength. Accomplish something more today you can feel proud of, and check on someone you haven’t heard from. Maybe they’re doing great and you can celebrate with them. Or maybe they’re not and you can remind them that they matter and aren’t alone. Either way, you did it right and can feel good about that.