The encroaching darkness

By in Opinions

It’s the end of November, and winter has settled in for the long haul. The days are not only colder and snow-laden but they are also significantly shorter. It’s that unnerving time of year when you look out the windows of campus and are surprised to find the slow, insidious creep of darkness greeting you.

This is a tricky time of year for many. Increasing pressures — personal, professional and academic — seem to bring increasing burdens for us to bear: a shadowy succubus of stress is hovering over us all. This is punctuated by the ever-vanishing hours of light that seemingly slip between our fingers.

It’s dark when we wake, making the journey to campus even more arduous and compounding the end-of-semester fatigue that has seeped into our bones. As you wander the tunnels and labyrinths of campus in the afternoon, you will notice the shadows getting longer — reaching towards the glass and stone of the buildings to swallow the place whole.

There is something isolating about the cold darkness. I often find comfort in the soothing somber baritone of Matt Berninger in my ear and an increase in the amount of bourbons I consume in the evening. And I am not alone — at least not when it comes to the alcohol.

Apparently, there is a tendency for those of us surviving in dark and cold climates to indulge in strong fermented beverages. Data collected from 193 countries found that heavy drinking is more prevalent in countries with little light and frigid temperatures.

The U of S campus, which is covered in snow for most of the school year.

This correlation is not surprising. Depression may be the middle point in this Venn diagram of gloom. Heavy alcohol consumption has been linked to mood disorders and so has light exposure — or lack thereof.

Light is strangely critical to our complicated biological meat sacks: we are incredibly sensitive to the timing, the amount and the wavelength of light that we are exposed to. This includes both visible light — like long red and short blue wavelengths — and other forms of energy like UV rays from the sun.

A particular wavelength of light can affect our circadian rhythms — an ebb and flow of complex biological processes that occur over a 24-hour period. The wrong wavelength or the complete lack of light can alter the chemicals that are synthesized in our brains. These chemicals — like melatonin and serotonin — are crucial to our health. They help our mood. They help us sleep.

When our environment lacks light, we have a tendency towards drinking, along with mood changes and ill health that can be correlated with a decrease in vitamin D synthesis and hormone production. It seems we are sensitive creatures, ever altered by our environment.

For years, there has been the thought that the darkness of winter is directly related to an increase in the number of people who die by suicide. But that might not be the case. The majority of the data actually points to the spring and summer — April being the deadliest month of all. 

Perhaps, Lana Del Rey is on to something when she sings about summertime sadness.

Following this trend, one of my idols took his own life this past summer. Anthony Bourdain  shocked many when he died by suicide early this year. But this is actually quite common. Suicides are notoriously hard to predict and often occur without warning. The question lingers — if we are able to better navigate the moods of individuals and notice a pattern, could we intervene early?

Days after Bourdain’s death, a suicide researcher from Ottawa ran the TV host’s tweets through an algorithm that pointed towards a pattern. This pattern detected a trend towards suicidal ideation, which peaked in his final days.

The same researcher, along with a team from Johns Hopkins University, also found a biomarker — a gene called SKA2— to which changes could signal an increased suicide risk. A blood test could, theoretically, track both the risk and the efficacy of treatments.

But can any of these pattern-recognition and biological-risk assessments be used to accurately predict such occurrences on a wide scale?

I am skeptical. Suicidal ideation is delicate and difficult to predict. In the case of someone with a wide-scale public personna, like Bourdain, it is easy to pick apart the pieces and patterns that are contained in the final months of his life.

But for the rest of us, living our private lives, would it be possible to see premeditation in our thoughts and actions — as a sort of final, parting portfolio?

Despite all appearances, we are sensitive beings who are ever changed — physically, molecularly and emotionally — by the environments we inhabit. Everything leaves its mark. If the data is any indication, it takes months for us to realize the full effects of these dark and dreary months.

Let’s take a minute to recognize how this season affects us, and perhaps, we can find some solace during these dark days.

If you are experiencing signs of seasonal depression, contact the Student Wellness Centre at student.wellness@usask.ca or Peer Health Usask at peer.health@usask.ca for support.

Erin Matthews / Opinions Editor

Photo: Tony Walker