A photo recently went around Facebook about stating that some areas in Scotland and Japan switched to blue street lights at night and saw a decrease in crime and suicide rates. If it’s that simple, this surely needs to be looked into…!
In Glasgow some street lighting has been altered for aesthetic reasons and some anecdotal reports indicated a reduction in crime. The research in Japan involved 71 railway stations and the blue LEDs appeared to reduce suicides by 84%. However, an article published later indicated the apparent reduction in suicide rate could have been misleading as there were additional details such as position and timing that was not taken into account. The claim is therefore unproven since in neither case was it possible to explain the mechanism by the which the lighting could work or find a definitive causal link.
However, I know that lighting and seasons affect mood so I thought I’d look into this a little further…
Light and mood
A study published in Ergonomics considered 988 people across 4 countries to determine whether mood of people who work indoors was affected by seasons and proximity to a window. The mood of people far north of the equator changed significantly depending on the season, which did not occur in people closer to the equator. The effect the amount of light had on mood appeared to be related to the individual experience (rather than objective measurement of luminescence). Mood was lowest when lighting was experienced as “much too dark”, mood was best when lighting was experienced as optimum, however, mood decreased again once lighting was too bright.
In my experience some people like bright light and will turn an artificial light on early in the evening even when light from a window, in my opinion, is sufficient. I can feel overwhelmed and over-stimulated in a bright office. This is tricky to manage since most of us work in teams, if not in offices holding large numbers of people – lighting (and therefore mood) would be optimum for one person but not for another. If you work at home and/or alone personalised lighting should be thoughtfully considered.
Seasonal affective disorder
Looking further into seasonal differences, the existence of Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is evidence itself that people are affected by the seasons. SAD is a recurrent major depressive disorder beginning in the autumn and continuing through winter. A study has shown that SAD is more prevalent the further away from the equator people live. This could be due to a number of factors including light, specific weathers, temperature or perhaps culture. Successful treatments include medication, indicating chemicals in the brain such as serotonin are affected and psychotherapeutic approaches provide people with ways to work through negative thought and behaviour patterns as well as alternative ways of problem solving etc. However, the most highly promoted and successful treatment is light therapy. The use of light boxes emitting the full colour spectrum, similar in composition to sunlight have been found consistently to show significant improvements in symptoms. In Scandinavian countries research into light rooms (indirect and evenly distributed) has been carried out and has proven benefits. Insufficient vitamin D is also linked to depression and can be due to low dietary intake but particularly due to a lack of sunlight since we absorb it through the skin. Light therapy can also be of use in re-setting the circadian rhythm (via the impact light has on melatonin production) in people with sleep disorders, people working shifts or to quickly correct jet lag.
Colour and mood
A study published in Genetic Psychology revealed that people respond differently to colours, finding bright colours eliciting more positive emotions while darker colours were associated with emotions perceived as negative. A similar study with children as subjects had the same outcomes, the brighter colours being, primarily pink, blue and red, and dark colours were brown black and grey. These studies also found that females had a greater emotional response than males. These responses make sense when considering the seasons. Winter is naturally more dull with grey overcast clouds literally darkening our world while Spring sees the emergence of daffodils and bluebells, naturally brightened by sunshine the clouds gradually part to reveal.
Biological affects of light and colour
So what effects does light have on the body? When light strikes the retina they are converted into electrical impulses, these pass to the hypothalamus which regulates the autonomic nervous system (e.g. breathing and heart rate) and other functions such as sleep (circadian rhythm), sexual functions, appetite and metabolism. Light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum so it is no wonder that inside the brain different colours will produce different responses!
It has been found that warm colours, such as reds, oranges and yellows increase heart rate, arousal and are associated with excitement – for some this excitement may be anger or irritability, for others, cheerfulness and joy. Yellow has also been found to trigger the release of serotonin (the “feel good” neurotransmitter lacking in the synapses of people with depression). While cool colours, such as blues and purples have been found to have more of a calming affect, decreasing heart rate, breathing rate and lowering blood pressure. Sometimes this could be perceived as a good thing, at other times people may feel drowsy or sluggish.
Some colours will simply be preferred by different people depending on their experiences (for example a particular blue of a certain logo distresses me due to the experience I had working for that company) . There are also cultural influences, for example purple has become a symbol of royalty, simply because when dying of fabrics was first available, purple dye was expensive. Green is often viewed as lucky, in, for example, in Irish culture it is the colour of the 4 leaf clover etc.
Unfortunately it is not simply a case of surrounding ourselves with a particular colour in order to feel a particular way. There are many other factors impacting our emotional state and thus our susceptibility to the influence of the colours. Mental illness and the process of arriving at suicidal thoughts, feeling and actions are is complicated and thus, blue lights at suicide hotspots is unlikely to significantly impact an individual’s actions. I have been fascinated by the amount of research there has been into light, colour and it’s impact on our health and mood. Sunlight, in particular is vital for our overall health. Individuals may find specific colours useful – for more info follow the links or just give it a “Google”!
Most of us have heard this phrase used in relation to someone one with a mental health condition. When someone self-harms, they’re “just attention seeking”, when someone attempts suicide but doesn’t complete or attends A&E, they’re “just attention seeking”. It is used in a derogative way and has an undertone of “don’t give them attention”, “they’re time wasters” and “make sure they understand how inconvenient they’re being”. I’ve heard it used by many different people including doctors, nurses, police and MPs.
If you actually step back and think about this…when a baby cries, they are asking for their needs to be met, we do not blame a baby for causing a scene, that is the only way they are able to get their needs met…if, at that point, their needs are not met, they are likely to develop other coping strategies – some will scream and cry more or bang their fists on the side of their cot while others will shut up and never expect their needs to be met. The care giver has the control over whether they receiving the attention they need. From the minute babies are born, they seek attention, they need attention. This does not disappear as babies grow into children and then into adults, we learn to satisfy ourselves, yes, but we still need attention in a variety of ways, it’s natural.
If an individual is in emotional distress, anxious, depressed, frightened, paranoid or confused they have a need to decrease the distress – this is a natural human desire. Some people will find it easier than others to manage their emotions. Most people will need to express their emotion and may need support from others. If, for some reason, they are unable to express their emotion appropriately or rationally, or their needs are not heard, they are likely to express the emotion in an unusual way, this can be known as “acting out”, they will seek behaviours that satisfy their natural human needs. Once this happens, is it right that they are then told they should not have attention? Surely the earlier they receive attention, the quicker their needs will be met and the unhelpful behaviour can be altered. These people need support to ensure they are able to express and relieve their emotions in a healthy way – how can this happen if people turn them away and they are told they are an annoyance or an inconvenience?
At times, when mentally very unwell, I’ve been distressed by voices in my head shouting hurtful remarks at me, I didn’t have the language or understanding to explain what was happening but I wanted them to stop (I think this is a reasonable desire!). Having tried every healthy coping mechanism I could think of and nothing having worked, at times I’ve banged my head against a wall with such repeated force I’ve ended up with severe bruising. This would go some way to relieving the voices. But I would then need assessing for concussion, fractures etc. The last thing I wanted was to sit in A&E for hours but there I was left, well past the target waiting time… at the time it made sense to me that I was being punished for my bad behaviour, after all I had done it to myself. The doctor then looked at me with such disdain, I was left with no doubt I was below dirt on his shoe. Being treated with contempt confirmed my belief that I was worthless, pointless and not worth helping.
Often people who self harm or act out in other ways do not want attention for that behaviour, I have always been embarrassed and ashamed and done my best to hide what’s happened. I have not wanted attention but I’ve needed attention (both for the physical injuries and) to understand what was happening so I could learn how to express my needs and emotions in a healthy and understandable way.
Some people worry that giving this “bad behaviour” attention, it will just continue. Believe me, if you’ve reached the point of acting out your emotions, it’s going to continue. Giving the right support and attention will ease the situation not compound it.
The state of the child and adolescent mental health service scares me. Reading this account from the Guardian saddens but does not surprise me. If children are left in mental distress, rates of child suicide will increase and those who do survive will end up in the adult mental health system – a very undesirable place, best avoided!
Next time you here someone say “they’re just attention seeking” with a derogative tone, say “yes, that is because they need attention”. They may not be asking for it in the most healthy way but that doesn’t mean you deny them the help and support they desperately need to work out how best to aviate their distress in the short and the long term.
Beat’s campaign to “Sock it to eating disorders” has prompted me to knit a pair of socks and reflect on the benefits of knitting! The British Journal of Occupational Therapy studied 3,545 knitters and found knitting has significant psychological and social benefits, which can contribute to well-being and improve quality of life.
- It is relaxing and can help alleviate stress and anxiety. The rhythmic, repetitive nature of knitting is soothing to mind and body. Knitting has been shown to lower your heart rate and blood pressure within a few minutes, and has similar effects on the mind to meditation.
- It is a good distraction and keeps you in the present. Mindfulness is the latest craze within the mental health world and I love it! I extend my practice beyond the traditional breathing techniques and can mindfully carry out activities such as showering, driving or washing up but I prefer to sit down a knit mindfully! The focus needed to count stitches etc. means you cannot dwell on the past or worry about the future, you have to focus on the knitting. The compulsive urges associated with addictive behaviours could be satisfied by the single minded focus on knitting.
- It boosts self esteem. All mental disorders are associated with low self esteem. Knitting items of clothing can take a long time therefore a completed item for yourself or a gift can give a huge sense of achievement. I often give hand crafted gifts for birthdays and Christmas, I like to see how pleased people are to receive what I’ve made.
- It prevents cognitive decline. A study of 1,321 older people showed a significant decrease in the odds of developing mild cognitive impairment if they took part in a craft activity.
- It can help prevent arthritis and tendinitis. Using your fingers, wrists and arms gently through knitting ensures fluid moves in and out of the surrounding tissues keeping the joints well hydrated and reducing risk of arthritis etc. (but it is not so strenuous that is causes repetitive strain injury).
- You can be creative. Most of the knitting I do is following a pattern but it is so much fun to make up your own! I made about 12 scarves a couple of years ago for Christmas presents, they were all experiments using various combinations of stitches – they might have had official names but it didn’t matter. Some I started and they didn’t look any good so I just unravelled what I’d done and started again. This gave me even more of a sense of achievement!
- Knitting can suit introverts and extroverts. I’m an introvert and love hours at home on my own knitting. For those who think this sounds like their idea of a nightmare, there are numerous “knit and natter” sessions all over the world for those who prefer to knit and socialise at the same time!
It is common for people to turn to vitamin and mineral suppliments which have been proven to have very limited impact over a healthy balanced diet. Instead of popping pills, try taking up knitting or another craft activity for so many proven benefits!