Got a case of the Mondays? Sunday is your day to shine
Paradoxically, the dawn of a new year is often occasioned by great sorrow. Not immediately, of course, as it usually takes a few weeks to kick in. But once the credit card bills for the "festive season" start to arrive, and our new year's resolutions lie in tatters, staring up at us in the form of empty cigarette packets or candy-bar wrappers are the tangible reminders of our ill-disciplined imperfectability.
For other more desperate individuals, the new year also represents a self-imposed deadline: "If things are not better by 2012, they never will be."
This idea, that the new year can be a time of extreme psychological distress, has been termed the "new beginnings hypothesis". It is based on the observation that suicide spikes on New Year's Day in some nations (first day of the year), and that there is a relatively higher rate of suicide on Monday (in the West, the first day of the working week). In 2005 the UK's Office for National Statistics examined all reported suicides in England and Wales between 1993 and 2002. They found suicides were more likely to occur on Monday, with the first day of the week accounting for 16 per cent of male suicides, and 17 per cent of female suicides.
Similarly their analysis revealed further support for the new beginnings hypothesis, with the report suggesting New Year's Day 2000 (the first day of the new millennium) saw more suicides than any other day that decade: 23 suicides, compared to the daily average of 10.
These attempts to predict when our moods are likely to rise and fall have important implications for mental health care, where prediction is an essential aspect of prevention. However, in recent years even commercial entities have got involved in attempting to predict the population's mood swings, perhaps hoping to exploit or leverage our misery to profitable ends.
One controversial attempt at mass mood-reading is attributed to Sky Travel - a UK-based travel channel - which enlisted the services of psychologist Cliff Arnall, formerly a tutor at Cardiff University. Dr Arnall put his name to a mathematical formula aimed at predicting the UK's unhappiest day of the year. This gave birth to the idea of "Blue Monday". Based on a rather cryptic formula, factoring in things like the weather and debt levels, Blue Monday is generally predicted to fall on the Monday of the last full week in January. Of course, in the UAE we might have to think about Blue Sunday.
This year, in the UK at least, Blue Monday falls on January 23. Perhaps in the UAE, we might anticipate Blue Sunday to hit us a day earlier - today.
However, I suspect things are very different in the UAE, as my institution's own research recently published in the International Journal of Mental Health Promotion revealed a seasonal pattern for depression in the UAE, with increased depressive symptoms in the summer and less in the winter. This pattern is partially explained in terms of higher Vitamin D and activity levels during the UAE's cool but sunny winter months.
With complex psychological phenomena such as mood we have to consider not only biology, culture, gender, and socioeconomic factors, but perhaps also climate too. This is research that is very much required in the region. What are the risk factors for depression and suicide in the UAE? Is there any seasonal patterning to suicides in the UAE, or the broader Arabian Gulf region for that matter? If we are to prevent and devise targeted early intervention initiatives, we will need to start answering such questions.
Depression is presently the world's fourth greatest public health concern, according to the World Health Organisation. The WHO suggests it will become the second by 2020 (just behind heart disease), and for women it will become the first.
Stopping smoking and quitting junk food are laudable health-promoting new year's resolutions. But what changes should, or can, society make to promote psychological wellbeing? My own new year's resolution is to find and promote the answers to such questions, answers that are grounded in - or at least resonant with - the UAE experience. Blue (azraq in Arabic) has no association with sorrow in the Arabic language, and Yaum Al Ithnayn (Monday) is patently not the first day of the week.
Perhaps today, Sunday January 22, will not be so sad after all.
Justin Thomas is professor of psychology in the department of health science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi
Updated: January 22, 2012 04:00 AM