For those who get the winter blahs, January is seen as the bleakest month of the year.
The holidays have come and gone, and with them the Hallmark movies and festive cheese plates that saw us through December. The days are short and dreary, many people are feeling a financial pinch after a month of increased spending — and never mind the pressure to reinvent yourself, or at least better yourself, via exercise and new-found hobbies and a vow to quit drinking in the new year.
There’s a reason we’ve coined the term “January blues.” And to add to that, many parts of Canada are seeing significantly less snow this winter (and a lack of fun wintry activities, like skiing), and the overall feel of the weather has been described by a senior climatologist as “very gloomy, doomy, morose and depressing.”
The “where’s winter” hashtag on TikTok has 1.4 million views, and while many of the videos poke fun at how depressing this particular winter is, mental health experts warn the issue is serious.
“Winter blues are more common than you think,” Sarah Kennell, national director of public policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), told CBC News in an email.
“The darker, shorter days can … sap our energy and leave us feeling sluggish and unmotivated. If you are having trouble getting out of bed in the morning, you’re far from alone,” she said.
According to the CMHA, about 60 per cent of people living in Canada report feeling the “winter blues,” where they experience mild symptoms of sadness, unhappiness or negative moods that occur with dark, cold weather.
Two to three per cent experience seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a sub-category of clinical depression, weather aside.
Lack of sunlight affects mood
“Oh, the weather outside is warm! The planet is dying,” croons Dean Martin in a popular remixed version of the famous song Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow! posted more than 3,831 times on TikTok, including by a Nova Scotia user. That particular video, posted on Jan. 1 with the comment “everyone in Nova Scotia [right now],” already has nearly 173,000 views.
A TikTok user from southern Ontario jokes in a video that it’s been 300 days since she last saw the sun.
“I’m up to three vitamin D pills a day. Still depressed, though.”
Dr. Michael Mak, a psychiatrist and sleep specialist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, told CBC News that it’s not the snow, or lack thereof, but the amount of light exposure that affects mood.
That’s not great news for people in some cities, like Toronto, which saw only 24 hours with clear skies for the entire month of December. And Calgary had the most rain in December since the 1880s, according to CBC’s climate dashboard.
“Here in Toronto, we’ve had less light, it appears, on average compared to other years past. It’s been very gloomy, it’s been overcast,” Mak said. “And the cause for seasonal depression is a lack of sunlight exposure.”
Bright light therapy machines that mimic sunlight can help elevate mood, he said.
Is it the weather or something else?
Dr. Raymond Lam, a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and the B.C. Leadership Chair in Depression Research, said he wouldn’t expect mild temperatures would make much of a difference in seasonal depression, noting that the only correlation is with the shorter days (sunrise to sunset) in winter.
That said, people with seasonal symptoms have different coping mechanisms, Lam said in an email.
“For some … they may miss engaging in winter activities to ’embrace’ the winter and so feel a little worse,” he said.
“However, for others, the isolation effects from snow and inclement weather make their depressive symptoms worse, so the mild temperatures may help their symptoms by allowing them to get out more.”
But as many people on TikTok have noted, their dark mood isn’t so much about the weather itself; it’s more about climate change. In response to the original TikTok video that used the Dean Martin audio back in 2022, one commenter wrote: “all you can do is watch the world burn.”
“The ice caps are slowly dyin’, and species are still goodbyein’,” wrote another.
In 2022, almost 80 per cent of Canadian youth reported that climate change is affecting their overall mental health, according to a national survey of 1,000 adolescents aged 16 to 25, the CMHA’s Kennell said.
“A growing number of Canadians — especially youth — have become increasingly overwhelmed with eco-anxiety and grief over the planet’s future,” she said.
If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help: