In recent years, the conversation around mental health has become refreshingly nuanced. A wider, better-educated range of voices is being heard, as we begin to treat mental illnesses with the same care and sincerity as we do physical ones.
While we are still subjected to the same stale suggestions that simply going outside or exercising can provide a cover-all cure - “hey, why not try just being happier!” - those opinions are now quickly shut down and pulled apart.
We understand that mental illnesses hurt different people in different ways - that these problems can’t just be switched off with ‘a bit of positive energy’ or by ‘manning up’.
For 11 months of the year, these more sympathetic, understanding voices form the bulk of the conversation, and can be used as evidence of how the needle has shifted.
So why, in mid-January, do we always end up taking this giant leap backward with the commemoration of ‘Blue Monday’, as brands and publishers rush to tell us how on earth we can cope with the ‘most depressing day of the year’.
As anyone who has suffered from depression or other, similar mental health problems knows, cherrypicking a single day of the year on which we will feel the most sad is totally absurd.
Let’s take a look at the ‘science’ behind Blue Monday. That’s ‘science’ in inverted commas, of course. Where did it come from? And who decided that the third Monday in January was the day we all just can’t help but feel ‘blue’?
It originated in 2005 when Sky Travel announced its existence alongside a ‘scientific equation’. This equation looked at a number of factors, including how stressed we are, how much sleep we’re getting, our commutes and how much ‘me time’ we’re enjoying, and concluded that the third Monday in January is the day we feel the most down.
The solution to that? Book a holiday, of course!
Despite the ludicrousness of the entire concept, and the fact that it was created by a company trying to sell us holidays, Blue Monday has managed to stick around for more than a decade, thanks mainly to its catchy name and the fact that, yes, January is dark, wet and dingy. Christmas is already a distant memory and work is a drag and all our mates have given up booze and we’re all a bit fed up. However, there’s obviously a very clear different between depression and being in a bit of a huff.
Writing for the Guardian in 2012, Dean Burnett called the equation ‘ludicrous’ and the values it uses ‘impossible to quantify and largely incompatible’.
And as we know, the presentation of a set day to feel depressed, and the marketing of products and holidays as solutions to the ‘blues’, goes against all the progress we have seen in mainstream coverage of mental health since that original campaign back in 2005.
The rise in mainstream mental health writing in recent years has made one thing entirely clear: depression, anxiety, and all other mental health issues don’t care what day it is.
It doesn’t care who you are - whether you’re a Premier League footballer, a celebrity, or a member of the general public - and can strike at any time and for any reason. Sometimes for no reason at all – that’s just the nature of it.
Self-care comes from a place of knowing this and finding ways to minimise the negative impact, whether with the help of therapy, anti-depressants, routine, or any combination of approved, recommended approaches. By singling out one specific day as ‘scientifically more depressing’, especially when the evidence for this is flimsy at the very kindest, we’re running the risk of damaging those approaches which are proven to have an impact.
The entire concept of Blue Monday just feels so dated now. We’ve grown past it. We can see the promoted tweets and holiday deals for what they are - a cheap attempt attempt to jump on the ‘hip mental health bandwagon’ as a cash grab, and it looks gross.
Other pre-designated dates, such as National Suicide Prevention Day and Mental Health Awareness Week, are treated with a lot more consideration - brands will align with them in real, meaningful ways, so why does this all go out the window every time January rolls around?
Treating Blue Monday as just another entry in the calendar - as an excuse to send out an email in the hope of making a few extra quid - attaches a certain cachet to what is essentially a Frankenstein’s promotion - an almost throwaway sales push which has taken on a life of its own.
The failure to see what feels like a visible contradiction makes you wonder how much expressed solidarity with people tackling mental health issues is merely a case of doing what looks like the right thing, as if treating people’s lives like exam revision topics.
Following Logan Paul’s controversial filming of a dead body in Japan’s Aokigahara ‘suicide forest’, mental health author Emily Reynolds poured cold water on the empty ‘raising awareness’ argument put forward by the YouTuber.
Writing for the Guardian, Reynolds pointed to the ‘obvious nonsense’ of Paul’s statement and how ‘awareness raising’ has become a behemoth, writing: “Genuine awareness raising – thoughtful, responsible testimonies from people living with mental illness or disability – is invaluable. But when a term can be so easily utilised to justify even the most horrifying behaviour, it’s probably time we found a new one.”
This is part of the problem that comes from turning depression into currency; it is viewed transactionally, to the point where unrelated behaviours – booking a holiday months in the future, say, or buying food or drinks to ‘beat the blues’ – are given a relationship with it which doesn’t exist in reality.
Where anyone with first-hand experience can point to the need for better investment in mental health services, those without that pull may turn to awareness raising as an empty gesture, without stopping to consider the extent to which they understand the messages they’re putting forward. And this, in a way, is not too far from the tone-deaf branding around Blue Monday – it’s merely a different kind of failure.
We have to call out the flaws with Blue Monday, from the debunking of the pseudoscience behind it to wider criticism of its overarching message, and make sure this nonsense creation is consigned to the past.
(Images: iStock / Rex)