If anything good comes of the so-called 'smog blues,' a worsening of depression symptoms caused by air pollution, it would be a new musical genre that draws its scratchy-throated lyrics from the trials and travails of those exposed to debilitating, and demoralizing, bouts of air pollution.
This music would probably be heavily influenced by Chinese artists, where air pollution has gotten bad enough in urban hubs like Beijing that 'the smog blues' is a well-known term. Air pollution from coal-fired power plants and diesel fumes reached such peaks this week that the Chinese capital issued its first official red alert; closing down schools, shuttering factories, and banning millions of cars from the roads.
A "red alert" is issued for both duration and severity of a pollution forecast, in which the smog is predicted to remain at about 10 times the safe level of PM 2.5 for three days or longer. On Tuesday, Beijing's air quality index read 308, a “hazardous” level in the United States in which people are advised not to go outside.
As for the relationship between the red alert and the smog blues, Wang Jian, a psychiatrist at Beijing Huilongguan Hospital, told the China Daily that "a large number of patients with depression and neurosis came to him and complained about their worsening symptoms after being exposed to the polluted air" this week.
While Jian said more research is required to understand the links, if any, between serious air pollution and mental health impacts, he advised the patients to stay indoors and keep all the lights on.
Those without a history of depression or mental illness can also be affected by negative environmental factors such as smog, according to Jian, who said even "able-bodied and normal individuals" could suffer.
This would make sense as smog is dark and dreary and it's a well documented phenomenon that at least 5% of the U.S. population and up to 20% suffers from SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression that descends upon them during the fall and winter months when daylight is scarce. In heavy smog, daylight is always scarce.
However, Tian Chenghua, a professor at the Institute for Psychiatric Research at Peking University's No 6 Hospital, apparently did not see any increase in patients during the recent bout of smog. He said conclusions on the matter suffer from a lack of research, but that anecdotally, patients have told him they feel worse during smoggy weather.
The fact that smog may be affecting depression-prone people's moods adds insult to injury, as air pollution is already known to cause numerous physical health problems, including the risk of early death from heart and lung disease. This issue is especially severe in China, where a recent study found that around one-third of the Chinese population regularly breathes "unhealthy" air, and that air pollution kills about 4,400 people in China every single day.
Worldwide, air pollution kills around 3.3 million people every year, and for those not fatally impacted there are other repercussions. As the American Psychological Association reported in 2012, “evidence is mounting that dirty air is bad for your brain … Over the past decade, researchers have found that high levels of air pollution may damage children’s cognitive abilities, increase adults’ risk of cognitive decline, and possibly even contribute to depression.”
For children, the impacts of air pollution are amplified during developmental stages, and the impacts could be long-term in the form of both physical and mental ailments.
In China, air pollution could even be extending into people's sex lives. One recent study found that more than 70% of Chinese people are not satisfied with their sex lives because of stress and depression. So if air pollution is worsening depressive symptoms in any way, it could also be worsening sex lives.
Talk about having the smog blues.