Edinburgh's independent student newspaper

The mental danger of darker nights

Looking through a window in a dark room to a dim sunlight
Monday 1st November 13.44

Today there were six-hundred and sixty-six minutes of daylight. Tomorrow there will be six-hundred and sixty-two. The days are dawning darker and the nights are drawing in.

I’m not afraid of the dark, but I’ve been taught to view it as dangerous. As a woman, it is easy to feel increasingly confined as the days get shorter. The headlines over the past few days have served as a reminder that the night is a hostile space for women. Women are persistently told to get home before dark and warned against walking alone at night. In light of this, sunset has come to seem like a constricting  curfew, falling earlier each evening. As the daylight hours decrease, so do women’s liberties. 

It is hardly surprising, then, to learn that women are four times more likely to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) than men. SAD is a seasonally triggered form of depression that often arises during the winter months. Symptoms of SAD include low moods, anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure), fatigue, anxiety, loss of libido, insomnia, changes in appetite, and an array of other symptoms often associated with depression.

While the direct causes of SAD are unknown, it is believed that sunlight assists the brain’s capacity to produce serotonin – the happiness hormone – whereas darkness is believed to increase the production of melatonin, which facilitates feelings of fatigue and exhaustion. Additionally, many people fail to absorb enough vitamin D during the darker months, as winter sunlight does not contain enough UVB radiation to allow for absorption of the vitamin. Although SAD is more common in women, research by the University of Glasgow suggests that around three percent of the British population will experience SAD at some point in their lives.

There is no cure for SAD, but there are ways to combat the disorder. The NHS website lists the two main treatments as ‘lifestyle measures – including getting as much natural sunlight as possible', and ‘light therapy – where a special lamp called a light box is used to simulate exposure to sunlight.’ When darkness induces depression and despair, we are advised to look for light.

Daylight, however, is difficult to keep in view. Darker nights lie ahead; nights of our own making. In 1972, the British Summer Time (BST) Act was established to make the most of the daylight hours. On the last Sunday of every October, the clocks loop backwards, bringing dawn an hour earlier. BST was rooted in ideas of energy conservation and, above all, safety. Lighter mornings, it was argued, would make for safer travel and increase the population's exposure to natural light.

The rise in SAD cases suggests that, despite the implementation of BST, the darkness of the winter season remains a source of mental danger. What’s more, lighter mornings come at the expense of longer nights. With reports suggesting that forty-nine percent of British women now feel unsafe walking at night, BST’s elongation of the evening becomes somewhat problematic.

It may be time to adjust our interactions with daylight to reflect the recent illumination of mental health and gendered issues. Perhaps, through stopping the clocks and thinking through our responses to darkness, we can alight upon the means to combat the dangerous and the depressive.

Image via Stockvault