Mental health in a pandemic – and why we should take Blue Monday with a pinch of salt

Today’s guest blog is written by Liam McKinnon, Director of Engagement at Off The Record.

It’s “Blue Monday” and we’re in the middle of a pandemic.

For many of us, life doesn’t feel much fun right now.

It’s fair to say that COVID-19 is impacting us all, presenting increasingly complex and emotionally difficult circumstances across many age groups and demographics. As a mental health social movement by and for young people, OTR (Off the Record Bristol) is an organisation and service that places a real emphasis on early intervention and health promotion. We know that it is vitally important to support young people to be resilient and feel empowered – and right now, conditions are tougher than anything this generation has faced before.

The very things we discuss about ‘staying well’ at OTR are the very things that have been stripped away from us all in the last few months: Connection, relationships, social experiences, learning, being outdoors. 

This hits young people hard. In the last few months, young people have been asked to leave school, stay at home and away from their friends; they’ve had their exams results thrown into turmoil; they’ve seen their networks of friends, peers, teachers, lecturers gradually disappear from their daily social contact. Young people have basically been asked to put their lives on hold and wait this whole thing out.

OTR reaches over 13,000 young people a year, facilitating conversations about mental health and wellbeing via one-to-one support, group work, and outreach into schools and universities. As part of this work, OTR challenges the inequalities in the societal frameworks young people exist within, as we know this is a huge determinant of poor mental health. It is evident from the thousands of conversations we’re having with young people that this pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities many young people face. To see the disgraceful food packs, entirely unfit for purpose, sent to some of the young people and their families most hard-hit by the pandemic, it has once again become very clear that certain populations in society are being disproportionately affected by Covid. It has highlighted the serious lack of power young people, particularly disadvantaged young people, have in society – and the carelessness and dismissive nature in which they are treated. That has a huge impact on wellbeing.

In the face of such adversity, we’re so inspired by the young people we’re talking to. At OTR we operate with a strengths-based approach and we’ve been speaking to young people across the city that, throughout the lockdowns and in spite of everything, have demonstrated amazing energy, creativity and leadership. That is why it was so heartening last week to read Rife’s ‘30 under 30’ piece, showcasing amazing young people across our city who are creating positive change. Many of these young people are familiar to OTR in one way or another – and at a time where the response to the pandemic is led by adults (and let’s face it, mostly white, male adults) – it is a very welcome celebration of diverse, youthful voices.

We feel proud at OTR to see such a socially-conscious, articulate generation emerging. 2020 certainly put Bristol firmly on the map for empowered, youth-led activism.

In the midst of this pandemic and with such inequality evident across our city alongside many others in the UK, it feels uncomfortable to again be hearing about Blue Monday – a day claimed to be ‘the most depressing of the year’. The harsh, unfair reality is that many young people continue to grow up in such bleak circumstances that render the very idea of ‘Blue Monday’ frankly insulting. Through Covid, this has been exacerbated further. The pandemic is not the ‘great leveller’ as was suggested by some last year – it is an amplifier of pre-existing inequalities. We are seeing this first-hand at OTR.

We’d like to encourage more critical thinking around a day like this. As is the case every year, we see high-profile campaigners and politicians wheeled out to discuss and analyse Blue Monday in the media, as if to lend it more weight and credence. (Blue Monday was in fact coined by a travel company who opportunistically used supposed low mood as a marketing ploy to sell holidays – you can read more on that here). Alongside “the most depressing day of the year”, another popular mental health narrative and an oft-quoted soundbite is that “1 in 4” of us will “suffer a mental health problem in our lifetimes”. But how helpful actually are these theories? Not only are they scientifically baseless, but by its nature the 1 in 4 stat others and problematises that ‘one’ in four of us. When exactly does our mental health become a problem? Such discourse around Blue Monday and 1 in 4 puts the onus – the blame – for poor wellbeing on us as individuals. It fails to recognise the context; the difficult situations that life throws up – not least what we’re collectively experiencing right now.

OTR’s message is that mental health exists on a scale, and the last few months have surely demonstrated that our wellbeing is shaped by life experiences, by society, by systems. Let’s not medicalise and individualise what is very often a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances and unjust systems. If we do that to young people, we normalise medicalising rational human response. We set them up to consider themselves to be the problem.

Mental health is social and political. The way we feel and the opportunities we have in life to help ourselves and our communities be ‘well’, unfortunately, are often dictated by the systems we exist in. Young people don’t often have much of a voice in this picture, but we’re seeing a really positive shift in Bristol and beyond, even throughout this pandemic. OTR is here for young people, not only to support them in the more difficult times, but to help mobilise them to change and shape our future for the better. It’s their future, after all.

OTR Bristol (Off the Record) is a mental health social movement by and for young people in Bristol and South Gloucestershire. You can find out more about OTR at www.otrbristol.org.uk or by following @otrbristol on social media. You can make a donation here.

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