Mental Health

Is Blue Monday a myth?

Today is Blue Monday, also known as the ‘most depressing day of the year’. But is there any truth to it? We investigate the day’s origins and why we might feel those winter blues…

Is Blue Monday a myth?
Niellah Arboine
Daniella Betsheva

I’ve always heard the term Blue Monday floating around – the so-called ‘most depressing day of the year’ in the UK, typically on the third Monday of January. You can sort of see the logic behind it: we’re drastically falling from the heady highs of the festive season, the streets are littered with browning Christmas trees, and we’re just surviving in winter uninterrupted by any form of celebration. New year’s resolutions start falling by the wayside and, well, Mondays always feel so bleak.

Overnight the world shifts from ‘indulge, be merry and spend time with your loved ones!’ to ‘be better and do better!’, and for me, it just leads to feelings of deflation, sadness and a longing to be anywhere but on this grey island. So is there actually any truth to Blue Monday? And what can we do to deal with this January slump?

First of all, I feel it’s important to point out there is a big difference between depression and feeling sad or down every now and then – that’s something that we all feel. Depression is a very real illness that can be extremely debilitating, long-lasting and life-threatening. Depression by the very nature of the illness can’t be confined to one particular day topping them all, or treated by anything I write.

The clunky (and rather unhelpful) moniker of ‘Blue Monday’ gave me an inkling that it probably wasn’t conjured up by a mental health charity or the NHS. And I was correct; the term was actually coined by Sky Travel back in 2005 in a press release to, well, sell us things – and hasn’t stopped. The day was ‘calculated’ by considering factors like post-Christmas, weather, failed resolutions and debt. But scientists and mental health charities have since said that there is no science to back this up.

In a statement from 2016, Mind’s Head of Information Stephen Buckley said: “There is no credible evidence to suggest that one day in particular can increase the risk of people feeling depressed,” but he did acknowledge, “There are of course certain things that may make people feel down at this time of year.”

So is Blue Monday actually real? Well… not particularly. Does depression peak on one particular day nationwide? Absolutely not. But that doesn’t take away from January feeling like the most emotionally-draining month of the year with little-to-no resolve. So I asked a professional what they thought about it all, and what we can do to help with the January blues (and not depression).

“January has generally always been my busiest time of year with the most referrals, from my time in clinical psychology to community mental health and schools, all the way through to my private practice today,” says Ruth Micallef, a counsellor who specialises in eating disorders.

I asked Ruth what she thought about Blue Monday’s assumed connection to depression, and she notes that words most definitely mean different things.

“Depression can be incredibly debilitating, and by using terms in such a flippant manner – OCD is another example of this – it can truly minimise the struggles of many,” she says. “We need to be aware of the clinical terminology we use – and in what settings – to ensure that people can connect with, and understand, what mental health challenges truly present as. The reality is that any capitalist institution trivialising mental health is inherently doing it for their own gain, not the good of the public.”

But Ruth does note that there are a number of reasons why we can’t seem to shake off the winter blues. Firstly the dismal weather and seasonal affective disorder, but it’s also the time spent with our families over the Christmas period that can prove challenging. “Adverse Childhood Experiences [ACES] being formative traumas for so many us, going back ‘home’ for Christmas, or seeing family, can be incredibly triggering,” she says. And the hangover of all the invasive questions and critiques from family and friends can slip into January.

“Setting healthy boundaries with toxic or unhealthy people in our lives is paramount, as well as giving ourselves the space to emotionally recharge throughout January with activities that nourish you,” she advises.

All of this pressure coming from multiple directions can lead us into slipping into “unhealthy coping strategies” as a way to self-soothe or detach, Ruth adds.

“From excessive screen time and doomscrolling, to alcohol, drugs, excessive shopping, exercise, or working, disordered eating behaviours, and any risky behaviours, take time to note if you are slipping into an unhelpful way of coping, whether you need a little support to get through the month, and what you can do to help support yourself.”

So, even though Blue Monday is pseudoscience, it doesn’t mean we can’t use this time of year as an opportunity to check in with ourselves, recalibrate and most importantly be kind to ourselves.

“​​As with everything, this too shall pass, but we want to be feeling like our most content selves when we come out the other side.”

Read last month's mental health column about seasonal affective disorder.

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