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I’m quite sure that you’ll tell me just how I should feel today

January 19th, 2009

Dr Petra

You may or may not have noticed, but today it’s Blue Monday. Based on a hotly contested ‘formula’ predicting the third Monday in January is ‘officially’ the ‘most depressing’ day of the year, it’s a tale the media loves to regurgitate each year. That’s in spite of numerous controversies around the accuracy of the formula and the creation of one day as being more depressing than all others. You can read mine and other people’s previous criticisms of the day here.

Predictably today we’ve seen Blue Monday reported poorly in many media outlets (and some blogs) where clearly the same old story and formula are repeated errors and all. As the day has seemingly become the ‘officially’ most depressing day it’s now the bandwagon of choice for all manner of PR opportunities including:

Virgin Active Gyms

Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust
Yorkshire Moors and Coast
and the AA (that’s the Automobile Association, rather than Alcoholics Anonymous).

Within many mainstream outlets the day was mentioned, but not the formula or its spokesperson (Cliff Arnall). Some papers went the whole hog and mentioned the day being the most depressing EVER, and suggested all manner of reasons why we ought to be cheerful. Even the BBC and Channel 4 (who both really should know better) ran it as fact.

Of course we know journalists use this story as a peg to hang a story on. It’s an opportunity to run stories and photos of reasons for being depressed, or tips to beat the ‘gloomiest day of the year’. It’s not taken seriously. Unfortunately it’s still poor journalism if they’ve not cottoned on to the fact that it can’t possibly be the most depressing day of the year because the formula it was based upon makes no mathematical sense.

Since the first time the formula hit the headlines in 2004 critics were concerned about the creation and accuracy of the formula and the way the media uncritically accepts it. Over the past few years this concern has grown as the day has been co-opted in to promote mental health campaigns.

PR Company Green Communications have used the original formula to create their ‘Beat Blue Monday’ campaign which they use as part of their corporate social responsibility activities (and presumably also to generate interest in their company and additional revenue for them). Green Communications have previously used the day to mention mental health charities and suggest people donate to them. Last year they plugged The Samaritans, this year it’s the Mental Health Foundation. Both charities agreed to be promoted by the company, but are not clients of Green.

Practitioners, educators, academics and those with experience of mental distress have raised concerns about this approach and the formula, which is where what may seem like a light story over a nonsense formula becomes rather unpleasant.

After posting that blog about Blue Monday last year I was emailed by Mr Cliff Arnall who said my blog about his formula and the media coverage of it was libellous and defamatory and if I didn’t remove all material about him from the blog he would instruct lawyers to commence legal proceedings.

I took legal advice myself and made some small alterations to the blog (which now appears in this form). I did this as a goodwill gesture where there could have been ambiguity about aspects of Mr Arnall’s link with the formula. I didn’t remove the blog, however, since it raises reasonable questions about the formula and Blue Monday itself and linked to numerous other reputable sites and columns all raising similar issues. I later discovered none of these sources had been threatened with legal action by Mr Arnall although he had asked one blogger if he wouldn’t mind altering the tone of his blog somewhat.

It concerned me that despite being an advocate for science communication Mr Arnall appeared to respond to my questioning his formula (and more specifically discussing subsequent media coverage of it) by threatening legal action. I was (and remain) unsure why I appeared to be the only person out of a host of other bloggers/writers who was approached in this way.

After this it all went quiet until the start of this year when the blog Mind Hacks announced they would be hosting a ‘Blue Monday Bullshit’ competition where people could post daft formulae. Around about the same time Irregular Shed also summarised the recent events around Blue Monday and the formula, including restating concerns about the mathematical accuracy of the formula.

Next, Mind Hacks noted the Wikipedia entry about Blue Monday appeared to have been tampered with, and the person doing the editing seemed to work for Green Communications (see their blog of 8 January for more information). This led to Green Communications responding in a way that may seem somewhat aggressive for a PR company that claims to specialise in crisis management and raising awareness of depression. Mind Hacks responded to Green’s post here, while Green Communications complained about people criticising their efforts on their blog.

And during today’s media coverage more worrying issues have emerged, such as the advice given to beat the blues (including Meet a Tudor or watch a ‘fun DVD’) which is clearly not adequate for anyone who is genuinely suffering from depression.

There were plenty of media mentions of the day (Blue Monday), various companies trying to get a plug on the back of it, and many people offering self-help cures cashing in on the event. But where was the mention of Beat Blue Monday or Mental Health Foundation? Surely if that’s the point of the day they ought to be at the forefront of media coverage? Can a mental health charity comfortably align itself to a campaign that’s also used for additional promotional activity ranging in this case from promoting Yorkshire Tourism to Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust?

It would be easy simply to dismiss this as a bunch of geeky scientists and media types misunderstanding each other, but this story is far more than that. There are very real questions about the mental health promotion and media coverage that remain unanswered here. These include:

- What is the evidence that a one-off day to talk about depression has any impact on how we understand or respond to mental distress?
- How much money has the day raised (in cash terms) for named charities?
- What is the impact on an awareness raising day when so many other outdated media reports or attempts at additional PR activity happen at the same time?
- Is it okay to base an awareness raising day on a serious issue on something that has no accurate grounding and runs counter to a more accurate, critical and evidence-based approach to mental health?
- Is there any evidence that making a day about depression seem ‘fixable’ by petting an animal, calling an old friend or watching a fun movie could in fact mislead people about how debilitating depression actually is – and lead to people being unsympathetic to those suffering as a result?

There’s also the age old problem of what happens when academics and practitioners question bad science. For a start as soon as you question anything there’s the accusation that it’s some kind of personal vendetta – which misses the point of tackling bad science and subsequent media coverage.

As you’ll see in the debates going on in the Mind Hacks links above when we raise concerns about the formula and the concept of basing a day on it. Those running/supporting the Beat Blue Monday day construct themselves as the only ones doing something about mental health while the rest of us by criticising the approach are seemingly sidelining depression or spoiling fundraising efforts. Those opposing this approach argue that basing something on bad science is a bad idea even if it is in a good cause, and you can question the former without detracting from the latter.

I would expect that in future years we’ll see the formula trotted out again, journalists failing to check even the basics of the story and missing the wider and more uncomfortable discussions the day has created.

Sadly because of a dubious formula, the way it’s been used within the media and PR, and how it’s been defended, the day is most definitely shaping up to earn its reputation as ‘depressing’. But for all the wrong reasons.

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