How do populations self-medicate in cities with minimal sunlight?


When in Darkness, Sniff

A Cross Comparison of Seattle, Washington and Reykjavik, Iceland

How do populations self-medicate in cities with minimal sunlight?

Andy Lane



“You will give the people an ideal to strive toward. They will race behind you. They will
stumble. They will fall. But in time they will join you in the sun. In time you will help
them accomplish wonders.”  
(All-Star Superman, 2007) 
“The Sun is gone, but I have light.” 
(Nirvana, 1993)


“We come from the land of ice and snow. From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.” 
(Led Zeppelin, 1970)



When in Darkness, Sniff

Providing Foundation: Abraham Maslow & Addiction

     Throughout history, individuals have made irrational decisions that at times seem
insensitive to the world surrounding them. Abraham Maslow would argue that these
irrational decisions are simply one’s attempt at refining their journey toward self
actualization. Through the lens of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, many behaviors can be explained as unconscious efforts to getting needs met (McLeod, 2007). Before achieving self-actualization, one must first rummage through their desired needs through the levels
of physiological, safety, love/belonging, and self esteem. The format used to describe this
schematic of development is a pyramid that places the differing levels of needs in
sections beginning with physiological needs (breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, etc.) at
the bottom and self-actualization (morality, creativity, problem-solving) at the tip of the
pyramid. It can be argued that this path toward self-actualization is the unconscious drive that is the natural developmental structure for the human condition (McLeod, 2007). This discussion over data gathered will operate under such a foundation. 

     To arrive at the tip of the pyramid, an individual must be given the potential to
achieve such status in an environment that caters toward a comfortable transition into the
next category of needs. If the environment to bolster such transition is not present, an
individual reacts in various ways to cope. This is seen in sexually acting out, substance dependency and if physiological needs are net met can result in death (McLeod, 2007). Environment dictates how fluid each transition into the next stage is. Breathing, eating, 
sleeping and all of the physiological needs must be met as a foundation to travel up the pyramid and to continue living. Many of the primal foundational needs are provided by
the active role that the Sun plays in its dance with the Earth.

The Sun: An Intimate Friend

      Do not be fooled by the sunrise and the sunset—the star in which the Earth orbits
is the exact same star that every generation of humankind has seen.  Although there are
many stars in the universe all with different names and unique properties, the
International Astronomical Union has named this star a name not shared by any other—
“Sun”. It has an intimate relationship with humanity in that it affects the quality of life in
both physical and mental wellness for men and women on the planet. Perhaps the most
obvious gift is it’s provision of Vitamin D, a necessity for absorbing calcium and promoting bone growth. The Sun’s UVB rays, however, provide even more natural benefits for a healthy life. In the medical field, these rays have been used in treating skin diseases, such as psoriasis, vitiligo, atopic dermatitis, and scleroderma (Mercola, 2012). 

     UVB rays are a necessity for a healthy life as they regulate the amount of melatonin in the pineal gland photoreceptors, allowing individuals to regulate their circadian rhythm (Mercola, 2012). This helps in finding a healthy balance between sleep and energy. When this rhythm is unbalanced, several mental health issues occur including Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and sometimes-­‐severe Depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder, n.d.). The Sun directly affects individuals in their journey toward self-­-actualization because of its natural properties, but there are certain places in the world in which this star does not shine so bright. Those affected by the darkness have turned to various forms of self-­‐medication in an attempt to cope with the lack of UVB rays. The results are terrifying.

Dark Places: Environments Evoking Despondency

Seattle, Washington

       Seattle is the 20th largest city in the United States, with an estimated population of 662,400 people in 2015 (About Seattle, n.d.). Throughout a year it is estimated that this grouping of people experience 2,170 hours of sunlight and 164 days of sunshine (Days of Sunshine Per Year in Washington, n.d.). It is estimated that only 58 of those 164 days are clear skies with direct sunlight. A research assistant at Washington University explained on the phone that October and November are the roughest times of the year for Seattle—a term commonly referred to as the “Grey Period”.

     The rainy days in Seattle can affect the population in more ways than just wet socks and traffic accidents. Lack of sunlight can lead to clinical depression. Among many of the reasoning for this is the overproduction of melatonin on the body. According to the DSM, females are 200% more likely to develop SAD. This is problematic for Seattle as the city has a slightly higher population of women than men (About Seattle, n.d.). SAD is most common among people between the ages 18-30, making those living in Seattle even more susceptible to the condition as its most populated demographic are the ages 25-34.

     Because this grey period has the potential to last for months, residents of Seattle are forced inward for an unhealthy amount of time as they defer to staying home rather than interacting with neighbors and friends. This isolation promotes a worldview of disconnection, a mindset that has been proven to beget addiction as seen in the research conducted by Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander’s “Rat Park” experiment (Ingles-Arkell, 2013).  The conditions in which the population of Seattle operates under make them more susceptible to depression, and thus more attracted to substance abuse as a coping strategy.

     Narcotic Coping. Through this isolation and lack of sunlight, many have turned to substances as a crutch to cope with their lack of needs. In 2014, Seattle had 156 deaths related to heroin, spiking it up to 58% above the norm (Aleccia, 2015). In addition, there were 70 methamphetamine deaths, jumping up to 59% more than normal. Deaths rose in all substances including alcohol (88 deaths), Cocaine (78 deaths), and Benzodiazepines (70 deaths). Although heroin is the most common substance due to its and addictive nature, it appears that substance abuse has increased for every narcotic across the board. These statistics show that the Seattle substance abuse issue is the highest it’s been in the past 17 years (Aleccia, 2015). Coincidentally, Seattle had the highest annual precipitation rate in 2014 since 1996, making it the rainiest year in the past two decades (Seattle Annual Precipitation, 2015). It can be theorized that the increase in narcotic related deaths must be associated with the lack of UVB rays over the year.

     As a response to such an epidemic, on 11/18/2015, the FDA approved an anti-overdose nasal spray version of Naloxone to be sold over the counter in the counties surrounding Seattle. Washington State law (RCW 69.50.315) allows anyone at risk for having or witnessing a drug overdose to obtain access to a prescription for naloxone. Substance users, family members and concerned friends can all carry naloxone in the same way people with allergies are allowed to carry an epinephrine syringe, sometimes referred to as an "epi-pen" (, 2015). The product is now going for $40 on the market.

     Non-Substance Coping. Although substance abuse is at an all time high in the Emerald City, many residents of Seattle opt for ulterior ways of coping with the lack of sunlight. A “Sun Lamp” or “Light Box” is a common household appliance that is used to combat the lack of sunlight. Research has shown that some individuals benefit from 30 minutes of time around the appliance a day, resulting in uplifted spirits and positive mood changes (Canney, 2011).  Other forms of coping include getting Vitamin D tested, healthy diet, and connecting with nature when able to be active outside.

     Many efforts are being taken to combat the overproduction of melatonin from the lack of sunshine. On 11/18/2015, the Seattle School Board voted 6-1 to push public school to start no earlier than 8:30 in an effort to provide the students with adequate sleep in hopes of increasing academic performance while decreasing teen substance addiction and depression (Kim, 2015). Because the weather in the Northern East Coast plays by a different set of rules, those living within the area must do so as well by making shifts in policy and structure. These institutional attempts to cope with the lack of sunlight give Seattle hope for a brighter future.

Reykjavik, Iceland

            Reykjavik has an estimated population of 121,822 people (Iceland Demographics Profile 2014). Its weather patterns are unlike any experienced by those in the West as Icelanders only experience 1,268 hours of estimated sunlight per year- a significantly smaller number than the 2,170 that Seattle experiences (Average Sunshine a Year at Cities in Europe, n.d.). This amount of sunlight is, in fact, the least amount of hours for any city in the world. Whereas Seattle may have an estimated 8 ½ hours of sunlight a day, during the winter Iceland only gets four. While the rest of the world categorizes the Sun’s relation to the Earth in terms of “day” and “night”, Iceland uses different terms to categorize time--astronomical twilight, nautical twilight, civil twilight, and direct sunlight (Pease, 2013). Although this lack of UVB rays is as problematic as anywhere else to the people of Reykjavik, they seem to accept and triumph over this difficulty with a resounding force, overcoming all environmental deficits that may thwart their development through the hierarchy of needs. This triumph over the darkness can be verbalized in the ancient Icelandic saying, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing”.

            Recent findings have discovered that a lack of UVB rays is directly linked to cancer, yet according to Organization for Cooperation and Development, the last international survey of countries with cancer rates placed Iceland at 16, where the United States landed in 6th (9 Ways a Lack of Sun is Killing You, 2014). When investigating the prevalence of SAD in Iceland, researchers A. Magnusson and T. Partonen discovered its prevalence only among 3.8% of the population without any chronic obesity from weight gain. The weight gain and prevalence of SAD was less in Iceland despite its Northern latitudes when compared to that of East Coast United States, which was 9.29%.

            Narcotic Coping. The country of Iceland has a minimal amount of substance use and an almost nonexistent amount of substance abuse. Despite one fourth of the population saying they have experimented with drugs in the past, and 10.000 reporting to use cannabis on a regular basis throughout the entire country, substance use is not common for Icelanders (The Reykjavik Grapevine, 2013). A survey done by RUV, an Icelandic news source, questioned Icelanders between the ages 18-74 on their substance experimentation. They noted that those who tampered with substances had only done so very few times. The criminologist conducting the survey, Helgi Gunnlaugsson, reported that there are only a few hundred addicts in the entire country (Fjórðungur Íslendinga prófað fíkniefni, 2013).

            Non-Substance Coping. Icelanders appear to adopt a mindset of acceptance toward the dark. Using common sayings like “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” Or “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” they show a demeanor of consent toward and appreciation for the changes in weather. Icelanders embrace activities of skiing, sledding, ice climbing, snow mobiling, and hockey during these twilight hours, uniting the community together through the darkness (Moore, n.d.).


            Among many factors, the Sun affects moods through its regulation of melatonin. Depressive moods are linked to substance dependency as a crutch for coping with unmet needs. Reykjavik has more than 1,000 hours of darkness than Seattle and is in a more isolated area of the world, yet substance abuse is practically nonexistent.  Seattle had 314 drug related deaths in 2014, whereas Reykjavik’s substance abuse is so minimal, the statistics to quantitatively compare the city’s drug related deaths simply do not exist (Aleccia, 2015).

          An attractive and quick answer to explain the differences between the two might be to compare the Western principles of violence and individuality in contrast with Iceland’s peaceful and unified demeanor, but these principle driven cultural differences may not be the actual reasoning for an inability to cope. Reykjavik’s resilience over the dark may be due to the very nature of their remarkable isolation. While Seattle is the 20th largest city in the United States and a popular place to move for young professionals, those living in Rejkjavik were most likely born and raised there. Because Reykjavik has been established for over 1,000 years in the northern latitude, the population may have a tolerance toward winter darkness. According to, the Emerald City’s population increased by 62,000 since 2010—a group of migrants most likely lacking a tolerance to winter blues.

            As practitioners, the takeaway from this cross comparison should be to consider all aspects of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs when working with a client. Every element should be examined when there is an inability to cope. Substance abuse and depression can be triggered by an individual not getting their needs met. These needs are sometimes as interconnected systemically as a lack of positive mirroring from a partner or can show up in a physical form as seen in lacking healthy levels of Vitamin D in the body. If Reykjavik’s resilience over the dark is due to their isolation, perhaps this is a lesson in taking the role of detective when in session. Those things that are automatically categorized as unhealthy or simply overlooked may be the very thing that saves a city. Who would have thought that the presence of a star in the universe may directly affect the behavior of humankind?



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