Blue Monday: what do the experts think?
Blue Monday. Most of us have heard of it. What you might not know is that it was coined as a result of an (unscientific) equation created as part of a PR initiative for a travel company!
Some people believe it undermines the seriousness of conditions such as clinical depression and conflates it with feeling ‘down’. Others see it as an opportunity to share advice on self-care during a month where circumstances may be tough for a variety of reasons. Indeed, Samaritans are reclaiming the day for their ‘Brew Monday’ campaign.
With this in mind, we spoke to mental health trainer Alice Lyons, the founder and director of wellbeing agency Dark Coffee, for her insight.
Kintsugi: Hi Alice. What is your take on ‘Blue Monday’?
Alice: It definitely is a double-edged sword. It can mean misappropriation of the term ‘depression’ by applying it to situations that don’t speak to clinical depression.
On the one hand, any National Day or occasion that shines a spotlight on mental health should be welcomed because it gives us an opportunity to have those discussions, and the saturation in social media newsfeeds can mean that important information is reaching people who might need it. Generally, mental health conversations DO need to be refined, but the placement at the end of January does act as a useful marker for people to check in with their mental health at a particularly difficult time of year, so it’s probably worth recognising Blue Monday.
Kintsugi: If people have pre-existing mental health conditions, why might January be a tricky month for them?
Alice: January is difficult for everybody, regardless of whether we have a pre-existing mental health condition! A deterioration in mental health can be caused by a variety of biological, psychological and social factors, and there are more than enough social triggers at this time of year. Particularly the long, dark days without the warm glow of Christmas lights. Typically, people have overspent over the Christmas period and there is a longer gap before the next pay day.
For business owners, December tends to be either uncharacteristically busy or quiet, so this disruption from their usual working rhythm can mean they have effectively a ‘hangover’ in January that is difficult to work through. Not to mention the general reluctance to socialise which means our usual coping mechanisms and support groups are unavailable to us. All together, it’s a lot to manage. If we understand positive mental health as an ability to navigate the stressors of our daily lives, it’s easy to see how January can knock us off-centre.
Kintsugi: What might they do to protect their mental health?
Alice: It’s different for everybody, but I would encourage people to focus on the basics. Small actions done regularly make a massive difference. I know it’s boring to follow the rules of eating healthily, getting exercise and staying hydrated; but the reason these recommendations exist is because they work!
Aside from our physical needs, we also need to make sure our emotional and social needs are being met. Obviously this is especially difficult during the pandemic, but it’s really important that we do what we can to protect ourselves from isolation, because this is the biggest threat to our mental health at the moment. I recommend people ditch some video calls in favour of phone calls. Video calls tend to keep us sitting down inside in front of a screen, whereas taking a call while you’re out for a walk in the daylight can mean you’re meeting multiple needs at the same time. I’d encourage people to take a curious approach to their own wellbeing and find things that work for them – just because the internet tells you to do yoga, doesn’t mean that it will suit you.
Kintsugi: Do you think there’s a certain level of pressure that comes from a ‘New Year’? The idea of a blank slate that people might feel scared to ‘mess up’?
Alice: Absolutely. The ‘New Year, New Me’ rhetoric needs to do one. One of the best things you can do for your ongoing mental health is to take on a regular reflection practice. My favourite technique is reviewing my week in my journal and looking at the highs, lows, recognising my achievements, learning from my mistakes and taking a moment to acknowledge where I’m at. When you do this on a regular basis, every week can feel like a fresh start.
Unfortunately, most of us aren’t used to doing this, because we’ve been socialised to believe that self-awareness is a scary thing that will make us painfully aware of our perceived flaws, rather than a healthy, encouraging, educational practice. So, suddenly sitting down for an end-of-year review is enough to throw most people into an existential crisis. Add to that the idea that any of us can exist in a state of perfection, and you’ve created a game you’ll never win.
Kintsugi: What advice would you give to employers worried about their employees, especially now that most work is remote? How can they help from a distance?
Alice: First of all, talk to your people. A lot of the problems that we have with our mental health come as a result of not feeling, heard, appreciated or understood, so creating opportunities to listen to people can go a long way. Managers should be having regular 1:1 communication with team members that is focused on THEM, not their WORK. Asking people how you can support them can present some interesting results that can be surprisingly easy to implement.
It’s also massively beneficial to invest in external service providers who specialise in this area. Wellbeing consultant can give you a broad overview of your current wellbeing program and make sensible recommendations for improvements. Emotional and social support services can also be massively beneficial when they’re hosted by a third party, because team members know that the conversations will stay confidential.
Kintsugi: How do you feel about the promise of a ‘return to normality’ that the vaccine seems to have offered?
Alice: I think promising anything in a pandemic is risky business! Rather than thinking of moving backwards, I think it would be better to look forward and think about something creating something new and taking a lot of the lessons of 2020 forward with us. For example, we’ve gained a lot of insights from hybid-working, a lot of us have enjoyed more flexibility in our working schedule and we have gained a new appreciation for the sense of community and connection we have in our lives.
It’s less of a ‘return’ more of a ‘rebuild’ with the potential for a lot of improvements, but probably not on a short-term basis. I think we’d do well to take a long-term approach to the rebuild, but not lose faith that things will improve, given enough time. There’s a strong case for hope in situations like this, and it’ll take us a long way if we hold onto it.
Alice is a mental health trainer, coach, speaker and Founder/ Director of wellbeing agency Dark Coffee. Having experienced detrimental mental health since her twenties including depression and suicidal thoughts, Alice is passionate about redefining the mental health conversation. Her company delivers services aimed at opening candid and compassionate conversations, teach practical self-management skills and allow people to bring their badass selves to work.