Saturday 22 October 2016

Patricia Casey: Blue Monday nothing but a marketing gimmick

Patricia Casey

Published 18/01/2016 | 02:30

Seasonal affective disorder can affect up to four percent of the popultion. Photo: Thinkstock. Picture posed
Seasonal affective disorder can affect up to four percent of the popultion. Photo: Thinkstock. Picture posed

Today, January 18 is 'Blue Monday'. Some newspaper headlines, somewhere, will claim that this day is the one which psychiatrists, and psychologists, have identified as the most depressing day of the year. And social media users claim that words associated with depression such as 'guilt', 'gloom' and 'dreary' trend on that day and their frequencies are higher than on other dates.

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The publicity began in 2005 when a doctor claimed that a mathematical formula, which included weather, debt, time elapsed since Christmas, and unsuccessful New Year's resolutions, identified the third Monday in January as the most depressing of the year.

The formula was attributed to Dr Cliff Arnall who argued that the darkness of January, the unfulfilled hopes of a new way of living, the broken resolutions, the realisation of having to pay the Christmas debt, the return to work and having to face reality all contributed.

Taking into account various factors such as the average temperature (C), the number of days since one's last pay was received (P), the number of days until the next bank holiday (B), the average number of hours of daylight (D) and the number of nights in during the month (N), was said to represent a formula such as C(P+B) N+D which it was alleged calculated the "depression factor" for each day of the year.

The belief that this formula represents a "depression factor" scare is unfounded and science has not identified any single day of the year as more depressing than any other. A "depression factor" has no basis in psychiatric or psychological practice and is nothing more than pseudoscience.

It turned out to be a ploy used by a travel company who wanted to exploit the understandable gloom of the post-Christmas period by encouraging people to book dream holidays on that day. Although the original idea has now been shown up for what it was, it hasn't deterred other companies from adopting and adapting the idea. For example, an ice cream company has used the same principles to promote a "happiest day of the year" in the summer to sell its product.

These gimmicks may appear trivial and even funny, but they have more serious downsides. The first is promoting the idea that a simple, universally occurring set of events can cause depression.

One doesn't need to be a scientist or a mathematician to know that most people have an intense dislike of the first month of the year, with very good reason. The cold, the darkness, being back at work, the length of time until the next long break (Easter), the disappointment at not being strong enough to fulfil resolutions, and the debt, are just a few contributors. But this is a human response, not an illness.

Critics of Blue Monday argue that using the terminology of psychiatric illness as a sales pitch is trivialising that illness and the devastating impact it can have on individuals and their families. They also point to the flip side and that it creates the impression that simple solutions, such as a holiday, are all that's needed to manage complex mental illnesses.

There is some merit in these criticisms but I doubt if anybody now believes that Blue Monday is anything other than a fiction.

We should, instead, be talking about real mental illnesses that arise - in winter particularly. At this time of year, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is likely to be affecting 1pc-4pc of the population. It really is winter depression, often beginning in October.

The symptoms are somewhat different from other forms of depressive illness in that there are decreased activity levels, tiredness and fatigue, sometimes overeating and carbohydrate craving.

They persist until the springtime, when they resolve spontaneously. With treatment, consisting of light therapy or antidepressants, or a combination, their severity can be abated.

If you have identified such a pattern of depressive symptoms in a loved one, encourage them to attend a doctor for advice. When their symptoms have lifted, buy them a copy of Malignant Sadness by Lewis Walport, who has suffered with depression himself and who has the scientific knowledge, as Emeritus Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at UCL in London, to weave his personal narrative and science into an inspirational, informative and comforting volume.

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