The residents of the Great Lakes region had many cloudy days in the winter of early 2023 — both literally and figuratively. As cities like Chicago and Grand Rapids, Michigan, grappled with record-breaking cloud cover, a deeper concern emerged: the toll it took on mental well-being.

What’s happening?

The Great Lakes region in the United States experienced an unprecedented lack of sunlight that winter, leaving millions of residents under gloomy skies for weeks on end, as reported by the Guardian. 

Cities like Grand Rapids and Chicago had some areas go without sunlight for extended periods. Research indicates that January 2023 ranked among the cloudiest months for several Great Lakes cities since 1950, exacerbating an already concerning trend.

The decline in ice cover on the Great Lakes has been ongoing for decades, with only 0.4% ice cover observed on Jan. 1 this year, the lowest since records began in 1973, according to Smithsonian magazine. This reduction in ice allows moisture to evaporate into the atmosphere, leading to increased cloud formation and lake-effect snow, further perpetuating the region’s overcast conditions, as the Guardian explained.

Why is this cloud coverage concerning?

While the link between a warming planet and increased cloud cover during winter months is complex, the implications for mental health in the Great Lakes region are significant. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression linked to reduced sunlight exposure in winter, affects approximately 5% of American adults, according to the American Psychiatric Association. The prolonged absence of sunlight can exacerbate symptoms of depression.

“People may notice they feel more depressed, have low energy, sleep more, overeat, crave carbohydrates, and engage less with others, especially during the winter and fall months,” Dr. Kia-Rai Prewitt, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, told the Guardian. 

Residents in the Great Lakes region are particularly susceptible to SAD because of the significant decrease in daylight hours during winter. 

Research shows that states bordering the Great Lakes, such as Ohio, Minnesota, and Michigan, have high rates of searches related to seasonal depression. Furthermore, cities like Cleveland and Chicago receive significantly less radiant energy from the sun compared to other parts of North America, exacerbating the mental health impact of winter cloud cover, the Guardian noted.

What can be done to improve mental health?

The outside world and weather can have major impacts on mental health. For instance, studies have shown that the presence of green spaces — such as trees and community gardens — in urban areas can have a beneficial effect on mental health. 

Increased greenery can help reduce stress and improve mood, potentially counteracting some of the negative mental health impacts of living in a city. Moreover, engaging in community gardening has been associated with higher levels of well-being and optimism, which suggests that interacting with nature, even on cloudy days, can be uplifting.

Additionally, individuals can take proactive steps to mitigate the effects of SAD by seeking exposure to natural light, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, and engaging in regular physical activity. Additionally, investing in light therapy lamps can help supplement the limited sunlight during winter months.

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