Prioritise your wellbeing on Blue Monday, and throughout the winter RESOURCES FOR LIVING WITH SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER DEVELOPED BY PROF HAYDEN LORIMER in partnership with University of Glasgow, LLTTF and artist-poet Alec Finlay

A new range of creative educational resources could help people who suffer from low mood during the winter months to bring some light into their lives.

Prof Hayden Lorimer developed the resources, along with colleagues from the University of Glasgow, which draw on the experiences of people living with Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

The Royal College of Psychiatry estimates about 3% of the population experience SAD, suggesting that, during the winter, more than a million adults in the UK live with emotional challenges, lowered mood, and feelings of anxiety.

Prof Lorimer says, “Reduced access to natural light during the winter months can have serious impacts on people’s mental health, particularly in Scotland where days can be shorter than elsewhere in the UK”.

The resources include a new online education course developed with cognitive behavioural therapy experts to help people recognise and tackle their SAD symptoms, and a guide on adopting new creative practices and finding community support during the shorter, darker, wetter months.

The new web-based toolkit also offers guidance on how people affected by SAD can set up support groups in their own communities.

Living with SAD

The toolkit is one of the outcomes from a research project called ‘Living with SAD’.

The project began last year with a national survey that asked people about their experiences of SAD and assessed the severity of its effects on their lives. Many respondents reported that their lives during winter months were less social and less mobile, a feeling that was particularly pronounced in older people.

Survey respondents also described persistent lack of motivation, energy, enthusiasm and confidence, and a corresponding decline in positive relationships with friends, families and co-workers.

The project aims to start a new national conversation on SAD, which can have serious impacts on the mental and physical health of those who experience it.

Wintering Well

During winter 2022-23, ‘Wintering Well’ launched as a series of free workshops for people with SAD in the West of Scotland, which brought together the researchers, an artist, and experts in cognitive behavioural therapy, along with Glasgow-based volunteers who have experienced SAD.

The group met regularly during the winter months to discuss their experiences of SAD and to design and take part in creative and outdoor activities during the daylight hours.

Catherine from Glasgow, one of the workshop participants, said, “The workshops themselves formed an integral part of overcoming SAD last winter… It gave me something to look forward to, and a reason to get over the threshold, out into the world and off the sofa!”

At the workshops, Catherine chatted and had cake with other people with SAD, and engaged with the outdoors in a childlike and experimental way. The participants went on walks where they were encouraged to take photographs and build shelters.

Catherine said, “The workshops taught me the power in practicing 'noticing', and the benefits that come from taking a pause during day-to-day life. From the morning routine to the walk home”.

“I think overall the last winter has just gone better than the ones preceding it… I definitely feel like I was more of an active participant and helping myself this winter. But there was definitely ups and downs”.

The experiences of the participants helped shape the content of the resources, which were officially launched at a public event during the ESRC Festival of Social Science on Saturday 28th October – the day before the clocks changed.

Special guests, including doctor and popular science writer Gavin Francis, joined researchers at the University of Glasgow’s Mazumdar-Shaw Advanced Research Centre.

Gavin Francis said, “As a GP I see every year the way Scotland's winter can drag people down, making them feel tired, depressed, and lacking in motivation.

“I'm delighted that this project is broadening awareness about the importance of light to health, and the way that it is helping people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder to find fellowship, encouragement and sustenance through the darker months of the year.”

Neina Sheldon, founder of social enterprise Make Light Matter, presented her experiences of living with SAD at the launch event. She says, “Whether you experience the full clinical presentation of seasonal affective disorder or you're at the milder end of the spectrum, the resources will make a real and lasting impact on so many lives – not just empowering those directly light-affected to manage their symptoms more effectively – but in turn, their loved ones, employers and society as a whole."

Challenging the narrative

The Living with SAD project is not only prompting greater awareness of how it feels to be seasonally affected, and the mental health challenges faced by individuals, but is also significantly shifting the tone and focus of media coverage.

Both the event and free-to-access resources attracted considerable media attention, spotlighting the interdisciplinary, creative-arts led approach taken by the project team. Articles, features, commentaries, and interviews discussing the project appeared in the Guardian, the BBC, Good Morning Scotland, the Times, the Herald, the Daily Mail, and others.

Previously, many news stories debated the legitimacy of SAD as a diagnosis. But this new research puts individual and shared lived experiences at the centre of an emerging conversation about wellbeing and resilience, and how our society responds to increasingly disrupted seasonal rhythms and climatic conditions.

Prof Lorimer and his colleagues are exploring the impacts of living with limited natural light. He explains, “It could be a problem that we will face more in the future as our planet warms and the boundaries of the seasons become less clear”.

“Smoke from wildfires and pollution haze have the effect of filtering or blocking out sunlight”, Prof Lorimer says. “We’re already seeing side-effects of climate change which affect access to light.”

Light is a right

Artist Alec Finlay participated in the Wintering Well workshops, and co-produced ‘Light is a Right: A Guide to Wintering Well’. It features contributions from many of the participants in the workshops, and outlines creative ways to deal with the effects of SAD.

He said, “This was a group of people willing to give of themselves, who had the courage and humility to share difficult feelings and shadow selves, and, in doing so help one another”.

“That ambition became a playful ambition to reshape an entire city according to our relationship to low winter light. I believe that similar co-created accounts should be made by a collective representing every illness, but especially those conditions which are not yet fully understood, explained, or easily curable.”

Prof Hester Parr, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Geographical & Earth Sciences, is the Living with SAD project’s principal investigator. She said, “The Wintering Well workshops showed that people who live with SAD can deal better with their symptoms by being part of a community where they can meet regularly outdoors.

“What we want to do with these resources is give people around the country new tools which will help them deal with the challenges of SAD, and when setting up their own local Wintering Well groups to connect and offer support.”

The ‘Light is a Right’ book is available for free via the Living with SAD website.

The Living with SAD project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

[All images reproduced with permission from the Living with SAD project team.]