Blue Monday is the most depressing day of the year (only because we invented it)

Yesterday was Blue Monday. If you’ve made it through to today, congrats (I didn’t do myself in Tuesday, perhaps?) As a former graduate of the attempting to off yourself school of being mental (I flunked all classes despite my best efforts so am still very much with you I’m afraid) and a periodic flyer with Air Black Dog, I’m always a bit torn about these sorts of days.

I mean, let’s be honest, Blue Monday is just a label on a day isn’t it. There is nothing scientific behind it. A psychologist came up with the term when a holiday company asked him to offer a “scientific formula” for the January blues. Blue Monday is basically what he came up with.

Nobody is any more likely to do anything on Blue Monday than they are on the Saturday before or Tuesday afterwards. In many ways, it belittles genuine problems of mental illness. Because most mental health issues are not one day in the making. There aren’t many people who just wake up one morning and, apropos of nothing, decide they might off themselves today. Generally, depression, suicidal ideation and actual attempts on one’s life have been some time in the making.

That is not to say that we (or the individual) necessarily see it coming. It may come as a bolt out of the blue for us. But there is usually much more going on than the random decision of a single moment. And it is unlikely to be solely the result of a single, dark day in January and the realisation that the Christmas holidays are over.

For many people with anxiety and depression, there is a constant sense in which you ought to either be feeling happy by now or there are certain things that will surely perk you up a bit. Having a day built into the calendar – even if the intention is to try and raise awareness of depression – can be a bit anxiety inducing for sufferers of depression. It’s either billed as the most depressing of the year or it is a day for raising awareness of mental health issues. Frankly, whichever it is meant to be it can induce anxiety among depressives.

If it’s “the most depressing day of the year” (scientifically, there is no evidence for that), it becomes anxiety-inducing as it is the day we must try especially hard not to feel depressed lest it get the better of us. If there’s a day out there that’s likely to make us feel even worse than we already do, we better work especially hard at trying not to let it do its thing. But that takes an awful lot of mental energy, rarely works and “trying harder” (as if it’s the person’s fault that they haven’t been already) counterintuitively tends to make matters worse. Telling somebody with severe anxiety to watch out for this horrible day in case it increases their anxiety is, even to most casual observers, likely to increase their anxiety.

But if it’s a day for raising awareness of mental health issues, whilst that can be a good thing in principle, again, this can cause anxiety for sufferers. It’s not that we shouldn’t raise awareness but more that those suffering are expected to help do that (or, at least, they feel that’s expected). Then begins the tedious (and wearing) rounds of explaining your story over and over again. You have to recount all your symptoms and why because people just don’t get it otherwise. Not only can the thought of doing that induce anxiety, but the act of speaking repeatedly about your problems, whilst it can help, can conversely have the negative effect of bringing your problems to the fore. Depression is one of those things you can, albeit accidentally, talk yourself into feeling considerably worse. Relaying your story and symptoms over and over can be one way to bring that about.

The other problem with Blue Monday is it allows people to conflate feeling low and depression. These really aren’t the same thing. Everybody gets low sometimes. We all have days and weeks where we just feel lethargic and struggle to rouse ourselves to do anything. But a grey feeling for a few days, or a bit of lowness, is not the same as clinical depression. But things like Blue Monday (the most depressing day of the year) seem to carry that idea. As if you could be deemed depressed because of how you felt on a single day. And whilst Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is most definitely a real phenomenon, there isn’t a straight line from dark nights drawing in, SAD and depression. A lot of talk around Blue Monday just encourages this sort of thinking. A few tears here and there, or a bit of lowness of mood, must be depression and can be induced by a particularly dark, and short, January day. That is both unhelpful and untrue.

So, let’s stop talking about Blue Monday: the most depressing day of the year. Instead, maybe we can use the opportunity to talk about how to help people with mental health difficulties. They don’t have to be the ones to relay their stories. But if we used the opportunity to share how you might help somebody who is struggling, how to spot the signs of genuine depression yourself and some of the ways you might be able to stave it off, then we may be onto something that is altogether more helpful.