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Blue Monday – why are we still swallowing this?

January 21st, 2008

Dr Petra

Ah yes. It’s the third Monday in January and that makes it ‘officially’ the ‘most depressing day of the year’. Also dubbed ‘Blue Monday’ you may remember this fantastically successful PR activity from previous years.

It’s one of those weird and wonderful media cases where a PR story takes on a life of its own to become a ‘scientific fact’.

Just in case you missed it, and in case you were attributing feeling down to this special day, basically it’s questionable. Yes I know it’s miserable and raining here in the UK, and Christmas is over and all that. But it’s still not true that today is ‘officially’ the most depressing day of the year. Unless you count the way the media approaches this story – in which case it is.

I know I go through this every year, but here’s the backplot in case this story is new to you. The ‘most depressing day’ story was apparently dreamed up a few years ago by a PR team working for a travel company. Their idea was to create a formula to show that this day was indeed very depressing. But that you could make yourself feel better by – wait for it – booking a holiday or mini break. Hooray!

The PR company’s primary aim for this research was not to alert us to gloomy days or help with any mental health issues, it was purely and simply to promote a travel company.

At least two academics were approached by email by the PR company (Porter Novelli) who had a formula they wanted them to front. They refused. Psychologist Cliff Arnall ultimately fronted the campaign and maintains he created the formula himself, although articles in The Guardian and the Times Higher Education Supplement suggest otherwise.

Despite Arnall’s work being heavily criticised and the formula questioned for its mathematical accuracy, Mr Arnall has claimed to the Times Higher newspaper he is doing good science communication. In that interview Mr Arnall states that rather than publishing in academic journals, putting a PR campaign formula out to the public via the media is a great way of getting people talking.

Not everyone agrees with the formula or media coverage of it, as evidenced by responses from a medic and blogs such as Garlicksmack, The Guardian’s newsblog, and Integrated Science . A summary of the formula and criticisms of it can be found on Wikipedia.

The truly depressing thing about the most depressing day is that it’s taken on a life of its own. The story turns up every year around this time. And it appears even mental health charity The Samaritans have used it to promote their services. Although when I spoke to their Blue Monday contact at Green communications it seems they are running the BBM event to raise funds for The Samaritans. The Samaritans aren’t their client (although that point is not made particularly clearly on their website or press communications). They confirmed they had based the campaign around the research Mr Arnall had previously conducted on this topic after seeing it successfully used to generate publicity for other companies. Alerted to Mr Arnall’s lack of medical or PhD qualifications Green Communications promised to remove the mention of ‘Dr’ from Mr Arnall’s name (as it currently appears on their website). Although they were at pains to mention Mr Arnall does not recieve money from them for the Beat Blue Monday campaign and volunteers his services as a psychologist for free.

So this year did the media bite? Of course. This tired old tale was dragged up again in The Daily Express, Telegraph, and CBBC Newsround, The Daily News (NY) and Daily Mail.

Many of these newspapers claimed Mr Arnall is a clinical psychologist from the University of Cardiff. According to the British Psychological Society (who I checked with today) while Mr Arnall is a member of the BPS he does not list having a higher degree (e.g. a PhD) or any clinical qualifications within his membership profile. I also spoke with the University of Cardiff who confirmed Mr Arnall had held a part time teaching post in one of their departments. A press officer told me “he was never a full time academic at the university and has not worked here for many years”. The University had previously made this statement following other press coverage about the formula.

Newspapers and radio stations have clearly archived this as a ‘depressing day’ and so re-run the story every year. Perhaps forgetting the key tenets of journalism which are to check your facts. Had this happened any of the years the story had run it might have been revealed that there is no depressing day – the formula hasn’t been proven to be mathematically sound – it was created to promote a travel company. Perhaps if more journalists had done their homework it might have prevented us medicalising a day that isn’t really linked with depression, and which is causing a lot of mental health practitioners concern.

The problem is the whole time this story circulates as being directly linked with a mental health charity or based on a mathematical formula we’ll continue to give it coverage for the wrong reasons. Surely it’s time for a bit more transparency around this forumula, how it was created, and who it’s currently helping.

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