Action call on smog, mental health link invoked
Experts urged to collaborate on issue amid worsening air pollution
Senior clinical psychiatrists have called for closer studies on the negative impact of smoggy days on mental health.
Severe pollution has been linked to respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis, but few people realize it could trigger “smog depression”, said Tian Chenghua, a professor at the Institute for Psychiatric Research at Peking University’s No 6 Hospital.
He said it is scientifically proved that some types of depression are closely associated with conditions such as seasonal change and lack of sunlight. These are related to the production of the hormone melatonin, which lightens skin pigmentation.
Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau said on Thursday that the capital saw 58 days of serious pollution in the past year, with residents enduring on average a smoggy day every six to seven days.
PM 2.5 — airborne particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter — is the major pollutant on most of these days, with the worst pollution occurring in autumn and winter, the bureau said.
“China lacks scientific studies and investigations into how smog relates to human emotions and mental health,” Tian said.
“Experts in public health and clinical psychiatry could collaborate on this to better protect physical and mental health amid worsening air pollution.”
Pu Chengcheng, a psychiatrist at the hospital, said cases of increased anxiety and feelings of hopelessness caused by weather conditions such as smog, cloudy skies, rain and lack of sunlight are no longer rare.
“On seriously smoggy days, we suggest that patients, particularly those with depression, stay indoors and turn on the lights, even in the daytime,” Pu said on Thursday.
Xiao Lei, a university student in Beijing, who has had depression for two years, told China Daily that smoggy weather affects her mood.
“On days of continuous smog, I feel despair. It’s as if my life is shrouded in the cloying haze,” said the 24-year-old, who was admitted to a hospital after attempting suicide.
Pu said some patients with depression are more sensitive to smoggy weather that can affect their mood.
Xiao added that sunshine can bring her considerable comfort. “I am thinking about leaving Beijing for somewhere with a better environment, particularly the air quality,” she said.
On seriously smoggy days, we suggest that patients, particularly those with depression, stay indoors and turn on the lights, even in the daytime.” PU CHENGCHENG PSYCHIATRIST
Tian said that despite a lack of scientific data in China directly linking mental problems with smog, similar studies on weather and emotional and mental health are not rare internationally. He urged that more attention be focused on the issue.
He cited seasonal affective disorder, also widely known as winter depression and commonplace in northern Europe, as an example.
In November 2012, the town of Umea in northern Sweden began installing phototherapy lights at bus stops to help combat the shorter days and lack of sunlight.
A study published in the medical journal Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences in 2005 estimated that winter depression in Sweden affected 8 percent of the population.
Wang Jian, a leading psychiatrist at Beijing Huilongguan Hospital, a mental institute in the capital, defines the mental impact of weather phenomena, including smog, as “ecological pressure”.
“This, like social and spiritual pressure, could heighten negative feelings, fear and anxiety for both the healthy and those with mental problems,” Wang said.
“For mental patients, particularly those with depression and neurosis, smog can trigger some symptoms and worsen the situation, he said.
“We’ve seen some extreme cases where people with depression have committed suicide due to bad weather,” he said.
But he pointed out that not all patients with mental health problems are affected by bad weather.
“Learning more about the link could help us to avert mental health risks posed by bad weather,” Wang said.
The Huilongguan hospital plans to conduct surveys on the issue among patients.
“The healthy might also be included in such surveys, particularly those working long hours outdoors like traffic police,” Wang said.
Worldwide, studies on smog and its impact on mental health have begun to appear in recent years but remained limited.
Research in 2011 by Ohio State University in the US found that exposure to smog causes depression and learning problems.
Scientists from the university’s neuroscience department have concluded that smog alters the brain’s composition, and can lead to loss of memory and depression. Zheng Xin contributed to this story.