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Page last updated at 13:51 GMT, Friday, 30 January 2009

How texting could help the seasonally depressed

By Katie Fraser
BBC News Magazine

Girl reading text message on mobile phone
The days may be getting gradually longer, but for those who suffer depression from the winter darkness a new scheme which relies on text messaging, could help relieve their symptoms.

Waking up in the dark and returning from work in the dark is enough to get anyone a bit down but for some it is more serious than a bit of winter blues.

Victoria Osborne, 63, finds the colder months in the UK too much to deal with, and tries instead to escape to sunnier shores in order to avoid her depression during this time of year.

"In the winter I just don't want to be here. Last year I went to New Zealand from November to March. This November I went to Cyprus. I find it's like building up a resistance ahead of the winter."

This winter depression is more commonly known as SAD - seasonal affective disorder.

According to the NHS, almost one in 50 people in the UK has the condition. The worst months are from January to March - but can start as early as September.

Symptoms are lethargy, stress, unhappiness in winter months
Link to reduced exposure to light
One in 50 in the UK has it
Most common further away from the equator

Those who suffer complain of a variety of symptoms including total lethargy, problems sleeping and mood swings.

In a project about to be piloted in Cornwall, it is hoped a simple alert by text - or e-mail or voice message - could help.

In this three-month trial 200 volunteers who have been assessed by a psychological therapist, are being given a portable light box and some self-help information.

Be prepared

SAD is not triggered by short days, so much as gloomy conditions. So on a sunny day in mid-winter someone with SAD may not feel as bad as they do during a heavily overcast day in March. But the condition can be eased by exposure to a light box which emits an intense brightness.

Under the pilot project, alerts are sent to participants before gloomy days warning them to spend 20 minutes in front of their light box, and to read the accompanying advice that day.

This should help them to prepare for the dark weather and know what to expect when they draw the curtains.

Man working at laptop with SAD lamp
A special light box which helps to brighten the day

Kevin Simpson, a chartered clinical psychologist at Outlook South West, which is running the scheme and offers care to those with mental health problems, believes it should make a difference to many of his patients.

"There is good research that when the weather's bad, people are more likely to feel low. These alerts can increase compliance and remind people to look after themselves in a more effective way."

The project has been made possible with the help of the Met Office whose technology will forecast light levels up to two days in advance. When it's darker than a certain set threshold an automatic alert will be sent to those taking part.

It is a system that was first used to let utility companies know when the weather was going to be dark and people would be using more electricity.

Met Office clinical director Dr Tish Laing-Morton says that this was easy to adapt for the Cornwall project.

"It's the same kind of science, but it's directed towards helping people."

A similar alert service is already being used by the NHS, for those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - a lung condition.

Future alerts?

Although these are the only two services of their kind in the UK at the moment the Met Office is hopeful that there may be other ways that text, e-mail or automated phone messages could be used in the future.

It will be fantastic not to wake up with that heavy feeling, knowing that I can make it better
Victoria Osborne

Dr Laing-Morton says that there is already interest from the MS Society in developing an alert because particularly hot weather affects those with multiple sclerosis so adversely.

Ms Osborne has high hopes for the project. Having had SAD symptoms for years she thinks a texted warning will help her cope with those gloomy days, as she will be ready for them.

"When I was going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark I just found it so depressing. I couldn't get out of bed. It will be fantastic not to wake up with that heavy feeling, knowing that I can make it better."

If the text messages are a success, it should make the transition from one season to the next easier for many to deal with.

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