Today, Monday 21st January, is ‘Blue Monday’: apparently, the most depressing day of the year. A combination of the cold weather, lack of daylight, time since Christmas, time until next pay day and bank holiday, debt levels, failure to keep New Year’s resolutions and the fact that it’s the beginning of the working week renders this, the third Monday of January, a truly blue day- according to a pseudoscientific formula invented by a mysterious and hard-to-trace psychologist, for the benefit of a travel firm. The bunkum of Blue Monday has been well-documented, not least by Guardian commentator Dr Dean Burnett, and there is little doubt that the equation represents little more than a hotch-potch of nonsensical variables dressed up to look “science-y”.
Is this all just a bit of harmless fun, possibly even a way to get people talking about heavily-stigmatised problems such as depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder? There is certainly a place for promoting mental health and well-being, and for encouraging people to talk more openly about mental health problems, but I don’t think the concept of “Blue Monday” is the channel through which to do it. This is primarily because it dresses up the combination of a series of nonsensical variables as legitimate scientific explanation, and moreover, as science that can explain away and trivialise something as complex and debilitating as depression.
I’m sure very few people take the idea of Blue Monday seriously, particularly given the meaningless formula used to calculate it, but my concern is more over the general prevalence in the media of pseudoscientific explanations for multifaceted, often intractable, problems that people face, and illnesses with a huge variety of risk factors, presentations and prognoses. The same kind of thinking is responsible for proclamations that “scientists have discovered a gene for…” (leadership, time of death, binge drinking… you name it). These kinds of explanations imply (even if humorously) that in theory, science is capable of computing a series of factors that account for particular behaviours or experiences; in this case, factors that reliably crop up to cause a swathe of the UK population to feel depressed at a particular time of year. Of course, there are many factors that we know, through vast amounts of empirical research, contribute to or are risk factors for depression. Poverty, social marginalisation, illness, childhood abuse, genetics, isolation and substance abuse to name but a few. But these are extremely complex factors fundamentally irreducible to a formulaic calculation. Do we run the risk of undermining not only the complexities of mental illness but also the role and value of science with these pseudoscience media stereotypes?
Having said that, there are some great initiatives to have sprung from Blue Monday, such as MHRUK’s “Blooming Monday” campaign. This aims to get everyone to wear bright clothes to work today in the hope of injecting some colour and joy into the day, whilst raising funds for mental health research. I sadly admit I’m huddled in my big black parka jacket as it’s the warmest thing I own, but I hope that colourful socks still count.