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Feeling blue in the gray? How the inversion affects mental health

Posted at 10:16 PM, Dec 05, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-06 00:16:15-05

Most people living in Utah and familiar with the dreaded inversions, know that the poor air quality can lead to breathing problems and leave them feeling sick. But here's something else it can throw a wrench at-- mental well-being.

When the inversion sets in, areas like the Salt Lake Valley end up buried in thick, foggy weather for days.

People are advised to stay inside as much as possible. Many wear masks to avoid breathing the polluted air.

Even at night when it gets dark, it's hard to ignore the hazy glow still present in the air.

"It's just kind of the normal now, which is kind of annoying," Eshan Narasipura said, as he stopped at a gas station with friends in Salt Lake City Thursday evening.

He said he's a college student and already has the added stress of finals. The inversion, he explained, doesn't help. Narasipura and others notice that spending anywhere from a few to several days in the gray, can leave them feeling blue.

"It makes everybody feel kind of 'meh,'" local resident Alyse Potts said. "It's like a Monday, but all the time, you know. It's that Monday feeling."

Salt Lake definitely has a case of the inversions right now, and doctors explain it has potential mental health effects.

"When the air quality is poor, people have more depressive symptoms," said physician Elizabeth Joy, who is the Senior Medical Director for Wellness and Nutrition at Intermountain Healthcare.

She indicated that it can be compounded by the fact that inversions typically take place during the winter, when people are already prone to seasonal affective disorder.

While it would seem like a no-brainer that the sun disappearing and a gloomy gray swallowing the valley could lead to symptoms of depression, Dr. Joy explained that it goes beyond that.

She said lab studies with animals show air pollution can potentially affect the brain, by causing inflammation.

"Air pollution is crossing the blood-brain barrier, and causing changes in the brain itself-- which in and of itself, may be contributing to the depressive symptoms people experience," she said.

That's why when patients come to see her, Joy doesn't just ask about breathing or physical issues.

"How are you doing mentally?" She said, of what she asks. "I'm asking those questions, to raise that awareness."

Awareness, that living in bad air can take a toll on one's body and mind-- leaving them in a fog, all around.

To combat symptoms of depression during the inversion, Dr. Joy suggested exercising inside, connecting with people to avoid social isolation, leaving the valley and escaping to higher elevations outside the inversion, and light therapy.