Blue Monday doesn’t equate but getting informed about mental health does

Today is Blue Monday - a day which, somewhat controversially, has come to be associated in the media with understanding depression. Mental ill-health is one of the biggest threats to well-being and a source of real pain and suffering for many and it costs society a great deal in lost work time and poor productivity, so it’s encouraging to see more people talking about it. Perhaps that’s why The Samaritans is seeing it as an opportunity to promote the benefits of talking about your problems. They’re campaigning for people to celebrate Brew Monday instead and will be offering a cup of tea and a chat at events across the UK.

But, the mental health charity Mind is concerned that promoting the idea that there’s a single day in the year when people are more likely to be depressed will perpetuate the myth that depression can be explained by certain calculable factors and that it’s just about feeling a bit sorry for yourself.

Unfortunately the media call it Blue Monday after a dodgy equation. It was developed on behalf a travel company to show when we are most down which is supposed to be in the middle of January. As neuroscientist Dean Burnett puts it:

‘This silly claim comes from a ludicrous equation that calculates "debt", "motivation", "weather", "need to take action" and other arbitrary variables that are impossible to quantify and largely incompatible’

In effect the Blue Monday equation is an attempt to use Seasonally Affective Disorder (SAD) to sell winter sun. The date coincides with the peak booking window for travel companies. The man behind this mathematical mince has also devised an “equation” for an ice cream manufacturer which shows we are most happy when gorging ice cream in the summer.

The Blue Monday equation is not like say the golden ratio, an ancient elegant equation which defines how we gaze at the Mona Lisa, the perfect proportion of a TV screen or the pattern of a flower. Even on its own terms (excuse pun), the Blue Monday equation is mathematically pointless. In reality this equation reduces down to PR. It’s a piece of superficially scientific PR or puff research. Newspapers have recycled it because it seems plausible and we live in a society which is not that numerate.

Real evidence on mental health is gathered in resources like the CIPD’s 2016 Employee Outlook: focus on mental health in the workplace which shows the real costs to individuals and organisations. Only 4% of those with a mental health condition think it doesn’t affect their work. Half take time off when they need to, but half don’t because of the stigma. Less than half think their organisation supports them. They think the organisation will think they are malingering. We in the people and development profession need to be at the forefront of challenging that mind-set.

Most of us don't know what it's like to have, for example, severe depression, anxiety, debilitating panic attacks or something like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). A good use of Blue Monday then, would be to gain insight by accessing evidence based research and grounded personal accounts. Resources like the CIPD's widely acclaimed toolkit for line managers, and others, will help.

Or you can encourage your team to access some of the resources from organisations like Support in Mind Scotland, who are encouraging a bright Monday with Ceilidhs, and SAMH, which encourages lunch and learn around this time. See Me also has a brilliant campaign called OK, which is about reducing stigma. Following the links should take you just 10 minutes.

Accessible reads on what depression feels like and the value of therapies come from writer and comedian Ruby Wax - now a seriously trained counselor in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Wax is also appearing nationwide with a show based on the book. I am planning a trip with family members and possibly some CIPD colleagues.

Matt Haig in his short and powerful book Reasons to Stay Alive shows that people can come through severe mental illness and flourish again. If you are into football, the former World Cup referee Howard Webb talks honestly about his OCD in his new book and Tony Adams, ex Arsenal stalwart, is brutally honest about his battle with the booze and the “Black Dog”. If cricket is your thing, Graham Fowler or Monty Panesar will enlighten you. Whatever your sport or pastime, you’ll find someone who has suffered.

When a former academic colleague committed suicide through manic depression, I read Malignant Sadness, a fabulously poignant personal account of depression by leading scientist Lewis Wolpert. It gives searing insight though it’s a tough read exploring his own journey and the science and culture of depression.

So let’s make Blue Monday a focus for insight and understanding of an illness that is beyond sad, beyond seasonal and certainly beyond the bogus maths of the equation it’s become identified with. That should make a lot of us feel better.

View more resources and learn about the benefits of an effective well-being programme for your organisation and employees

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.