New Study Suggests Suicide and Sunny Skies May Be Linked
An Austrian study, which looked at over 69,000 confirmed suicides that took place in Austria between 1970 and 2010, shows that sunny skies may have a surprising correlation to spikes in the country's suicide rate.
Researchers compared records of the suicide rate in Austria with data taken from meteorological stations, which was used to determine the daily amount of "sunshine hours" during the 40-year period.
The results unearthed a duel pattern: first, in the initial ten days after the sun came out, suicide rates rose, a fact which exists in total defiance of what we already knew about the effects the sun has on our mental well-being. But in the long-term -- after between two weeks and a couple months of sunny days -- the rate in suicide drops.
A possible explanation for this short-term spike is that the sun may affect the brains of severely depressed people in much the same way an antidepressant can: by raising the brain's serotonin levels, which can, counter-intuitively, raise the short-term risk of suicide in some individuals.
Serotonin is implicated not only in depression, but also in impulsive behavior. And some scientists theorize that sunlight might affect some depressed people in a way that's similar to antidepressants: It may boost their "motivation" first, before improving their depression symptoms. That, in theory, could put some people with severe depression at increased risk of suicide for a window of time.
But it's important to note that interpreting the factors which lead to suicide is extremely complicated, so pinning the rise in suicide rates solely on the sun is simply not possible. Add to that the fact that the initial rise in the suicide rate in Austria is mostly among females, while the subsequent drop is largely in males, and many scientists believe it's very hard to come to any definitive conclusions.
According to Dr. John Mann, a professor of translational neuroscience at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, who was not associated with the study:
It's hard to say that there's a plausible biological mechanism that would explain the correlations... The effect would be very small, if it's there at all. I don't think people should avoid the sun because of this study.