Saturday January 24 2009
Blue Monday started life as a corporate puff for Sky Travel (end of January, perfect time to book a holiday). Their PR company, incidentally, offered a suspiciously similar ready-made “equation” to another academic, just months before it first appeared as important research by Cardiff academic Cliff Arnall.
But now Blue Monday has slipped out of Sky’s ownership and become part of the canon of pseudoscientific media myth. Most alarmingly, last year it was used by the Samaritans, and this year it was used by the Mental Health Foundation. These people, apparently, think it’s okay to use bullshit to promote awareness of mental health issues.
The Sun say “it is officially the most depressing point of the year. The misery of “Blue Monday” was worked out by psychologist Dr Cliff Arnall.” The Express loved it. The Mirror too. “Experts have worked it out” said Channel 4. CBBC fed it to children: “Researchers say the third Monday in January is when people are more unhappy than at any other time in the year.”
When I last criticised Arnall in 2006 (he also has a formula sponsored by Walls for the happiest day, which is in June), Cardiff University wrote to the paper, asking us to point out that he had only been a part-time tutor at the university, and left in February. These efforts to distance themselves from their famous child felt slightly disingenuous since they were also, at the same time, quoting Arnall’s ridiculous appearances proudly in their monthly roundups of the good work done by Cardiff press office to spread scholarship to the people.
I hope they are busy disabusing everyone else this year, including the Daily Mail, of course: “Today – January 19, 2009 – is the most depressing day in HISTORY, say experts. Psychologist Dr Cliff Arnall has devised a mathematical formula that pinpoints today as Blue Monday.”
Meanwhile Martin Hird, a senior lecturer in mental health and psychological therapies at Leeds Metropolitan University, told the Telegraph: “I would guess there is something in it based on the daylight hours and people’s social circumstances.” Right. You’d guess. Rather than actually knowing, or researching anything. I don’t fully understand why we don’t just ask your hairdresser instead.
And is there good evidence of season having an impact on our collective mood? Seasonal affective disorder is its own separate thing. If you look at the evidence on the population’s mood, depression, and suicide changing over the seasons, you do, in fact, find a glorious mess. Come into my anal and obsessive universe.
Back in 1883 Esquirol commented on the higher incidence of suicide in spring and early summer. Swinscow showed the same thing with all UK suicides from 1921-1948. So that’s not really winter blues. A study in 2000 looked at all UK suicide data from 1982-96 and found that even this seasonal pattern had pretty much disappeared.
What about elsewhere? A 1974 study on all suicides in North Carolina (3,672) and admissions to their Veterans Hospital Psychiatry Service (3,258) from 1965 to 1971 showed no seasonal variation. A 1976 Ontario study found peaks of suicide and admissions for depression in spring and autumn. Suicide is highest in Summer, says a paper from Australia in 2003. I’m really not getting this Blue January thing.
Maybe you want data from the general population on mood. A study in 1986 looked at 806 representative males from Finland and found low mood more common in the summer. Some studies do find higher rates of depressive symptoms in the winter (Nayyar and Cochrane, 1996; Murase et al., 1995), but then, some find the opposite results, like a peak in the spring (Nayham et al., 1994) or summer (Ozaki et al., 1995). One study from just last month proactively asked 360 patients to rate their mood regularly, rather than waiting for an event, and found no relationship, again, between mood and season.
Maybe there are other sources of data you could explore? A paper looking at GP prescriptions for antidepressants in 1984 found a spring peak. An earlier paper from 1981 (Williams and Dunn) looks at prescriptions from 1969-75 and finds peaks in February, May and October. Another from the same year looked at GP consultations for depression and found peaks in May-to-June and November-to-January (they found similar results for osteoarthritis, oddly).
I’m not claiming to have done a thorough systematic review of the academic literature before breakfast. I’m just saying it’s possibly a bit more complicated than everyone getting depressed in winter.
Maybe those papers are too old? Recently, researchers have found a peak in admissions for depression in autumn (Sato et al., 2006 and Silverstone et al., 1995), winter (Lee et al., 2007) and spring/summer (Shapira et al., 2004). Eight other groups of researchers have found no seasonal peak in admissions for mania and depression at all (Partonen and Lönnqvist, 1996, Partonen and Lönnqvist, 1996, Suhail and Cochrane, 1998, Whitney et al., 1999, Goikolea et al., 2007, Daniels et al., 2000, Upshur, 2005 and Mortazi et al., 2002), and no peak in admissions for depression (Kerr-Corrêa et al., 1998). Stop me now.
And worst of all, we know that lots of things really are associated with depression, like social isolation, stressful life events, neighbourhood social disorder, poverty, child abuse, and the rest. Get those in the news, I dare you. Suicide is the third biggest cause of life years lost. Anything real you could do to study the causes, and possible preventive measures, or effective interventions, would be cracking. Making stupid stuff up about the most depressing day of the year, on the other hand, doesn’t help anyone, because bullshit presented as fact is simply disempowering.