Against Blue Monday Marketing and the Trivialisation of Mental Health Issues

Ignorance sign in blue and white metal to signify ignorant behaviour. Displayed on white wall

Blue Monday, essentially the grimmest recurring day in the entire calendar, is nearly upon us. It’s a time when we’re supposed to be at our lowest, according to academic and merchant of doom, Cliff Arnall, whose dubious findings were based on calculations of average weather for the time of year, low motivation and high levels of debt.

The science behind it seems sketchy, but Blue Monday is basically an annual excuse for press release mayhem, when companies try to flog us things to cheer us up before our bank statements arrive. It thrives on the notion of low mood being permitted just once a year – if it helps, perhaps imagine it preceded by the word ‘cheeky’ – before normal service is resumed and we all just stop being so ungrateful. Yet the idea of low mood being self-indulgent, temporary or quickly diffused doesn’t gel with the one in four of us who will experience genuine mental health problems in our lifetime, especially the one in five of us who will have a depressive episode.

Depression doesn’t care if you own a private island in the Caribbean or you hang around film sets. Having money, status, success and sunshine are no guarantee you’ll be immune to a psychological illness – if they were, we wouldn’t read about a Bollywood star battling depression. Yet the ignorance continues.

In case you’re not aware of the cringe-inducing Blue Monday hype, the following jazzy PR sentences have actually been typed in the last few weeks:

  • From a travel company: Combat Blue Monday by saving 30% on a luxury holiday
  • From a Mexican restaurant: Celebrate like a guac-star with your best amigo this Blue Monday with FREE Tacos, guaranteed to make you nacho blue this January
  • From a bus company: Blue Monday e-gifts – in the small print, these range from a free bus ticket to sweets, or a £20 gift card
  • From a protein powder manufacturer: Beat the January blues this Blue Monday with a half an hour workout… there is no reason to let the January blues get the better of us

Blue Monday applies the ‘U OK Hun?’ approach to marketing: faux concern with zero sincerity and full self-involvement. It’s the equivalent of saying ‘chin up’ to someone in distress, and trying to distract them with a shiny product as if they’re a child. We are all allowed to feel unhappy, and we can all expect to feel down or frustrated, but labelling everyone as miserable devalues the unenviable horror of being truly depressed.

Defying Blue Monday

So, how can we stand up to the trivialisation of mental health issues? Thrive LDN, a London-wide group promoting mental wellbeing, is actively challenging the marketing spiel with its Anti-Blue Monday social media campaign. It calls on businesses to ditch the throwaway promises and remember that, for people living with a mental health issue, there’s no one day of feeling ‘blue’, then perking up again. Many will endure months or years of managing their condition on a daily basis, and much of it is either boring or bloody hard work. Whether you’re a Londoner or not, you can still admire their campaign against this phenomenon.

Meanwhile, the Samaritans is promoting Brew Monday: a reminder to catch up with someone over a cup of tea, and potentially make a donation to the charity. This is another purposeful antidote to Blue Monday and all it stands for. By making real connections with those around us, we can perhaps spot the signs of mental health issues, or just reach out to someone having a tough day who needs a listening ear. You could pick a really nice café you’ve always wanted to try (I have some London cafe recommendations), or just sit in someone’s kitchen with the kettle on.

A few days after so-called Blue Monday, I’ll attend a conference at the Royal College of Psychiatrists to find out how we can improve outcomes for mental health patients around the UK with safe and compassionate mental health staffing (I’m one of the ‘service users’ who helped with their research). This is the reality of dealing with people who have extreme cases of ‘the blues’ – a long-standing Blue Monday, if you like: they require medical and therapeutic intervention, lengthy appointments, and a trial-and-error approach with mystifyingly-named medication.

People with lived experience report a lack of continuity of care, often due to high staff turnover; hospital admissions that could have been prevented with proper care in the community, and lengthy waits for diagnosis, are also common. Everyone with a mental health problem seems to know someone with a horror story about terrible care, like a lack of any services within 50 miles of their home. Funnily enough, these patients don’t book a holiday or go for tacos and find their problems melt away.

Holidaymaker looking miserable or depressed sheltering under leaf in newspaper photo, used to represent ridiculous Blue Monday ideals of mood
Nobody told this holidaymaker that travel fixes all your problems and banishes low mood. As seen in an old issue of Life magazine.

The Blue Monday Holiday ‘Cure’

In fact, selling holidays to cure ‘the blues’ is particularly awkward, given the level of discrimination mental health patients face when trying to book any sort of break, be it approved by their psychiatrist or psychologist, a trip to an overseas retreat, or just a carefully-planned holiday with friends and family. Did you know you face higher travel insurance costs for disclosing a mental health issue, especially if you take prescription medication, you’ve seen a psychiatrist at any point in your lifetime (even decades ago), or you’ve ever been admitted to hospital in relation to it? I’ve blogged about this issue before, and it’s one I’ll continue to cover until we are treated with dignity by insurers.

Stepping away from the holidays you may or may not be able to take, actually managing your money is a challenge with poor mental health; that’s why the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute tirelessly campaigns to raise awareness of poor financial practices and marketing tactics preying on the vulnerable. The MMHPI’s research has discovered that half of people in debt also have a mental health issue; one in four people with depression or anxiety will have problem debt; one in three people with psychosis have problem debt. Each item they buy, promising an improved mood or quality of life, increases their financial issues.

Having worked on both sides of the PR and journalist divide, I understand that marketers jump on any kind of news hook (an upcoming or recent story) they can pin their clients to. January is a slow and dreary month – God knows why T.S. Eliot labelled April the cruellest month, but it’s clear he didn’t work in marketing. However, there are some news hooks you should rise above, especially in these enlightened times.

In the past two years, the media has made vast progress in understanding what should and shouldn’t feature in a mental health story, and many celebrities have spoken out about their mental health conditions, like anxiety, OCD or depression. The marketing world has been quick to pick up associated trends, particularly to do with travel, such as mindfulness, mood journals and spa retreats, which all have a captive audience and people’s best interests at heart. However, marketers capitalising on Blue Monday show their enthusiasm for #wellness is paper-thin.

Hopefully this is the last year we’ll see Blue Monday marketing campaigns, and the spirit of alternatives like Anti-Blue Monday and Brew Monday will dominate.