Blue Monday, pandemic blues

Protocols in place to keep us healthy from COVID can be mentally damaging. And with Blue Monday – the third Monday in January considered the most depressing day of the entire year – approaching, it is an opportunity to revisit the concept of “Blue Monday” in regards to mental health and spread awareness of the issues surrounding it.

“I believe there is a high possibility that people experience low energy and higher anxiety after Christmas and New Years,” says Gulnaz Anjum, PhD. “This is more likely if people were surrounded by friends, family, or were on vacation, and now are back to school or work with more stress.”

Conceived in 2005, Blue Monday was a publicity spin for selling the holidays; and according to the Mental Health Foundation website, Blue Monday was “designed to promote things that are vaguely linked to improving our wellbeing.”

Experts are skeptical: a product of geography

Anjum is an associate professor of social psychology at Simon Fraser University. Her work regarding anxiety recognition, gender, and psychology has been published in numerous academic publications.

“I have a hard time saying that there is one particular day that is more ‘Blue’ for the majority of people,” says Paula Allen, a researcher and senior vice-president of LifeWorks, the human resources firm formerly known as Morneau Shepell. “We actually see the increase in people accessing mental health support earlier in January and early September.”

She agrees there are numerous stresses and anxieties that occur after the holiday season due to financial strain and adrenaline reductions. However, Allen says the diversity of people’s experiences make her skeptical that Blue Monday is a universal phenomenon.

Anjum does not believe Blue Monday is a universal phenomenon either, and that any day can be difficult for those who struggle with stress and anxiety. She believes Blue Monday is a geographic and cultural phenomenon. She is familiar with Blue Monday from conversations with students and acquaintances from the Global North – that is people from North America and Europe.

“If we shift Christmas to summers, as in Australia, or say we are in a country that does not celebrate Christmas, would we still push for a day such as Blue Monday?” asks Anjum. “Of course not.”

Anjum says half the world, especially in the Global South in places like the Indian subcontinent and Africa, finds December and January to be a pleasant and anticipated time without a recognizable “blue” day. She points out that doesn’t mean similar anxieties don’t exist in those places either.

“Among the general population around the globe, roughly one third of us experience anxiety related issues at least at some point in our lifetime,” says Anjum.

Gulnaz Anjum does not believe Blue Monday is a universal phenomenon.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression, also known as seasonal depression, says Paula Allen, which fluctuates depending on the daily intake of sunlight and other factors. She says even summer and winter comes with its own set of stresses and people without SAD can feel them. Lifestyle adjustments like getting exploration and social contact are effective counters to that for most people, but professional treatment is needed for those with SAD.

“Most people think of SAD as a winter condition,“ says Allen. “There is however a Summer SAD, where the hot long days of summer trigger restless agitation, anxiety and even anger issues.”

Real depression lasts more than a day. And as the Mental Health Foundation website mentions it is “pointless” trying to identify the most depressing day of the year because “it would be different for each one of us.” There have been no “actual scientific studies,” but Allen sees Blue Monday, the idea, as an opportunity.

“My thought is that anything that gets us talking about mental health respectfully is better than keeping silent,” she says.

Opening up about mental health

“Great progress has been made, but we still stigmatize mental health issues much more than physical health issues,” says Allen. “So there is much more to be done.”

Allen says it is somewhat true that greater stigma exists regarding mental health among older people. However, she also notes that personal standards set in the workplace create a larger stigma among younger workers towards mental health. Allen’s work at LifeWorks has shown that younger people’s mental well-being is more compromised than that of older people.

“Many mental health conditions first emerge in late teens and young adulthood,” says Allen. “The life changes during this period are stressful and most typically do not have the cushions of financial security, role identity and accomplishments at work which can help.”

Anjum points out mental health issues exist across the age spectrum, but the stressors are different for each group. She says difficulties with attention, learning, substance use, anxiety disorders, and bullying are especially acute in Canada among youth who have been more open about the issue.

“Generation Z has been more vocal about mental health,” says Anjum. “Zoomers are followed by Millenials in being more expressive about their experience with stress and anxiety.”

Allen says increased discussions about mental health have happened simply because there is more data available.

“Lack of knowledge breeds fear and suppression,” says Allen. “With more information we have less fear, and understand the importance of broader awareness.”

Anjum notes that academic institutions and national campaigns have expanded mental health awareness across the world. Anjum and Allen also credit high-profile individuals and celebrities for openly speaking about mental health, which has reduced the stigma surrounding it, but believe there is more work to do.

Anjum points out that many challenges relating to youth mental health still exist in public schools because of insufficient funding and resources, but the situation is better in universities.

“Universities are doing a better job at this compared to many other institutions,” says Anjum. “I have personally seen that there are sophisticated mental health support and accessibility centers, in-person counseling, and online support mechanisms.”

Allen also says universities are better equipped to offer mental health support than public schools, but the pandemic has prompted some public schools to increase their budgets for support.

“The need has increased since the start of the pandemic,” says Allen. “Everyone knows that more is needed, and it is good to see action in this respect.”

For more about LifeWorks, visit https://lifeworks.com

For more about Dr. Anjum, visit https://sfu.academia.edu/GulnazAnjum

For public mental health resources, visit www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/mental-health-services.html

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