Every third Monday of January is labelled Blue Monday, or the “most depressing day of the year”. Yet, beware! There are no scientific facts that support it. Some have even called it “gibberish, rubbish, pseudoscience” .
The term was coined by psychologist Cliff Arnall in 2005 when he devised a formula commissioned by a travel company to ascertain the gloomiest day of the year for an advertising campaign to sell holidays. Despite the lack of evidence and the scepticism voiced by the scientific community, Blue Monday took off and it has stuck, coming back every year, and even leading to Dr Arnall apologising  for seemingly suggesting depression is a “one-day affair”.
But beyond the marketing punch of pinpointing a saddest day, January, in the northern hemisphere, has been known for its “January blues”, a general low/deflated mood being attributed to the cold, dark, gloomy days of the after-Christmas dip, and “going back to normal” after the lively holiday season.
Despite the lack of evidence and the scepticism voiced by the scientific community, Blue Monday took off and it has stuck, coming back every year
As Blue Monday and the “January blues” hit us on social media this year, this time around, it might, with good reason, feel gloomier than ever. Already the British Medical Journal suggests “How do I beat the January blues?”  The truth is that 2021 starts with a “double whammy”. On the one hand, the fatigue of the Covid epidemic on the day-to-day, the underlying uncertainty, economic downturn and financial insecurity, countries in and out of lockdowns, and the overwhelming feeling of missing social outings, hugs and smiles, wears us all down. On the other hand, the little glimmer of hope showing some light at the end of the tunnel, vaccination, is overshadowed by the fact that it is uncovering an increasing global socio-economic divide. And on top of it all, normality feels, and is, far off .
So, it is understandable that we urgently need to talk about mental health. Last year we witnessed a turning point: it brought mental illness into the open and underscored that mental health and resilience are critical resources for life that we need to nurture and never again take for granted.
During 2020, Covid and global lockdowns precipitated as much as a trebling of cases of depression and anxiety. And this was for everyone, not only health professionals and frontline workers, but also children and adolescents , adults, with young adults (20s-30s) especially affected, and older populations .
The devastation has been paramount: for those with an already existing mental illness their situation worsened. For the many new cases, some are still suffering in the dark, not realising that depression and anxiety are just an illness like diabetes or hypertension, that can be treated and otherwise can be long-term, and that seeking the readily available help should not be undermined by the taboo that has surrounded mental illness in the past.
What we forget is that the rates of mental health problems were of “epidemic magnitude” already long before Covid. One in four adults, so one in four of each of us, would experience at least one mental health problem during our lifetime . The associated costs to society were already higher than those of cancer, diabetes or heart disease , given the heavy indirect costs (e.g., productivity loss) and consequences of long-term suffering.
For example, mental disorders before Covid were among the five leading causes of all disability claims and repeatedly amongst the top ten causes of “healthy years lost”, becoming also an especially costly issue for employers. It affected all employees alike, including senior executives, with up to 75% reporting having felt somewhat burned out and a third describing it as extreme.
The current second and third waves of Covid are showing steadily increasing levels of depression and anxiety
On the positive side, mental health can be nurtured and for those suffering mental health problems much can be done to ameliorate the burden. During lockdown a proliferation of resources emerged to help cope with the devastating impacts of uncertainty, recommending, if feeling down, to: ensure social contact with friends and family; sleep and eat healthily and maintain routines; take notice and savour a good thought or moment at least once a day; support others and “give”, as acts of kindness improve mental and physical wellbeing; and, be physically active and practise exercise (even the effect of moderate activity is tremendous, as it releases endorphins in our brain, increasing wellbeing and helping against stress).
These were in fact also pre-Covid recommendations to improve wellbeing . And they remain equally salient today for nurturing our resilience, much talked about and referred to recently as a golden personal resource, the new leadership currency and a boardroom imperative . Resilience is about “how well we can deal with, and bounce back from, the difficulties of life”. It is not about how we endure (or how tough we are) but about our attitude in the face of adversities and how we can recharge.
Our level of resilience can vary over time, and like a muscle we can exercise it and continually nurture it. Being aware of our mental health and resilience levels , and being open to taking care of our mental health and sharing and reaching out for help when we feel we cannot cope, are key in our human quest for wellbeing.
Back to the beginning: this week Blue Monday might be trending on Twitter but nothing backs it up as the worst day of the year. While its commercialisation continues to trivialise the seriousness of depression, the day also has a value: it raises awareness of mental health problems and it can serve as a gateway to overcome the taboo still surrounding these topics.
It is a day when feelings of depression, anxiety or “feeling low” are shared in social media and openly talked about; when we realise we are not alone, in fact we are part of a large community, and it reassures us that having a mental health problem is not rare. The current second and third waves of Covid are showing steadily increasing levels of depression and anxiety, suggesting that the impact will be more serious because of the cumulative effect.
As we deconstruct the myth of Blue Monday and raise awareness about the need, more than ever, to nurture our mental health, this can be a chance to reflect on what troubles us, reach out for help if we need to, and continue the conversations to normalise and break the many taboos and stigmas around mental health problems.
At Esade we recognise mental health and resilience are of cornerstone importance and a most precious personal resource essential in the years to come. We set out to support raising awareness about the issue by launching a series of conversations and thought pieces with key leaders to be published monthly in our Do Better. Our first and inaugural issue will feature an interview on the importance of mental health for business with the director general of Esade, professor Koldo Echebarria.
- Blue Monday: a depressing day of nonsense science (again), The Guardian (2013)
- Man who coined the term 'Blue Monday' apologises for making January more depressing, Independent (2018)
- Abi Rimmer. How can I beat the January blues?, BMJ, 372:m4932 (2021)
- Coronavirus: Normality is 'years away' despite vaccines, BBC (2020)
- Tamsin Newlove-Delgado, Sally McManus, Katharine Sadler, Sharon Thandi, Tim Vizard, Cher Cartwright et al. Child mental health in England before and during the Covid-19 lockdown, The Lancet, DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30570-8
- Min Luo, Lixia Guo, Mingzhou Yu, Wenying Jiang & Haiyan Wang. The psychological and mental impact of coronavirus disease 2019 on medical staff and general public - A systematic review and meta-analysis, Psychiatry Res, 291:113190 (2020)
- About mental health, NHS UK
- Thomas Insel. The global cost of mental illness, NIMH (2011)
- 5 steps to mental wellbeing, NHS
- Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg. How to lead when your team is exhausted - and you are, too, Harvard Business Review (2020)
- Resilience is more than just a mindset, Robertson Cooper
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