Every year, the third Monday in January is designated as Blue Monday, aka the “most depressing day of the year”. But the concept itself is actively damaging our understanding of mental health, as freelance writer Emily Reynolds explains.
There’s no denying that January can be a difficult month for our mental health. Not only are we heading back to work after a (sometimes stressful) Christmas break and dealing with our festive overspending, but we’re dealing with the effect of low levels of sunlight exposure and dreary, dark evenings.
It’s not exactly the recipe for happiness – and on the surface, the concept of Blue Monday kind of makes sense.
There’s just one catch standing in the way of the whole “most depressing day of the year” thing, though – Blue Monday isn’t real.
To start with, the provenance of the date itself is pretty telling. Although articles on the topic often point to the “scientific formula” that determines the date year on year, it first appeared as part of an ad campaign from a holiday company called Sky Travel – hardly the rigorous, evidence-based approach we should probably be applying to the science we write about. Even the psychologist whose name was slapped on the original press release, Cliff Arnall, has since distanced himself from Blue Monday, admitting that he was paid to have his name and associated scientific expertise tagged onto a campaign designed to flog cheap holidays.
But somehow, dodgy evidence aside, the date continues to make headlines every January. And in recent years, an even more troubling trend has emerged, linking Blue Monday not just to misery, but also to mental health. Year on year, more and more panels, events and articles have started to connect mental illness to Blue Monday – and even if this connection is made in name only, it’s not a good one.
“Blue Monday minimises the issue of mental health via a formula that has no evidence base so far,” psychologist Zoubida Guernina explains to Stylist. “It’s considered by most to be completely pseudoscientific.”
In 2016, mental health charity Mind even launched a campaign called #BlueAnyDay in an attempt to try to dispel the myth that Blue Monday had something – anything – to do with depression.
“Blue Monday contributes to damaging preconceptions about depression and trivialises an illness that can be life-threatening,” Mind’s head of information, Stephen Buckley, wrote at the time. “There is no credible evidence to suggest that one day in particular can increase the risk of people feeling depressed.
“Depression is not a one day event.”
This is what is at the heart of the problem with Blue Monday: it suggests that not only can depression strike on one particular day of the year, and presumably have vanished by the next, but that we can trace the ‘causes’ to very specific (sometimes fairly facile) things.
The idea that depression is basically the same as ‘being in a bad mood’ is still, despite extensive anti-stigma campaigns, a pervasive one. Just ask anyone who has a mental illness and they’ll be able to reel off an endless list of responses – “cheer up” and “have you tried yoga?” being two particularly common refrains – that imply depression is something that, with effort, can merely be shaken off. Because of this, many people mistakenly, and often genuinely well-meaningly, believe that depression feels the same as a bad mood, just exaggerated.
But depression is much, much more than simply feeling a bit low. Depression can involve feelings of guilt, worthlessness or emptiness and often has a physical element too, with headaches, unexplained aches and pains and sleep problems all being common symptoms. Many with depression feel suicidal. It’s subtle, insidious: it doesn’t just announce itself one day because you don’t fancy leaving your duvet cocoon to go to work.
Similarly, the idea that specific things – even crap things, like being bored at work or feeling cold all the time – can “cause” depression is widespread. Of course there are factors that contribute to mental illness, and things like poverty, stress and problems with money can all play a part in poor mental health.
But to claim something like “time since Christmas” or “time since failing our New Year’s resolutions” (two genuine ‘units’ in the Blue Monday formula) are the primary cause of depression is both blatantly false and gallingly irresponsible. I’m regularly asked ‘why’ I have bipolar disorder – including, on occasion, by actual GPs I’ve gone to see about my mental health. These ideas aren’t just annoying. They can actively impact the level of care someone receives.
The fact we’re all talking about mental health on a regular basis is great. But using any old thing to hang depression on is not just thoughtless: it’s dangerous. The reality of depression is far more complex, nuanced and thorny than any press release or pseudo-scientific concept could possibly encapsulate – and it’s about time we did that reality justice.
Please be aware that this article was originally published on 5 January 2018, but has been updated throughout to include new information.
Images: Getty Images, iStock