Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 22 January 2011
I’m not going to tell the same story once a year, like some kind of journalistic dirty protest, even if it crops up in parliament, every newspaper, and all over Radio 4: there are more interesting things to say than “Blue Monday is bullshit”, but before we get there, let me briefly clarify how Blue Monday is definitely bullshit.
The “most depressing day of the year” began life as a “wacky academic” equation story: this is the kind of thing PR companies offer as “advertising equivalent exposure” for companies who want their brand in the papers. The equation stunt was not the work of an academic, it was paid for by Sky Travel, and Blue Monday comes just after your first pay cheque arrives, the perfect time to book a holiday).
In the following years it was co-opted by the Mental Health Foundation, and the Samaritans, presumably with good intentions. But although it feels vaguely right, when you leave those fairly rare “SAD” diagnoses aside, there’s no reason to believe that the population really is more miserable in January.
I reviewed the evidence from over 30 studies over 130 years on the subject last year, in an act of performance anality. Some find more suicide in spring and early summer, some in spring and autumn, some in summer only, some find no pattern at all. Many have sampled representative individuals from a population and followed their mood over a year, finding: more misery in summer, more in spring, more in winter, or no peak at all.
Antidepressant prescriptions have been tracked a few times (they peak in spring, or in February, May and October). GP consultations for depression peak in May-June, and in November-January (you get the same pattern with osteoarthritis consultations, oddly). Admissions for depression peak in autumn, or spring and summer, while 8 studies found no seasonal variation at all.
So Blue Monday does not put a catchy name on a simple human truth: in fact, it only really shows us how easy it is to take an idea that people think they already know, and then sell it back to them. Even if it’s entirely false. While it might be tempting to try and piggy back on nonsense, if you can think of no better way to engage people, in reality, communicating on mental health issues – like anything interesting – requires that you challenge stigma and assumptions, not reinforce preexisting ones.
But it’s also worth thinking about the wider consequences when we indulge, deploy, and therefore normalise, nonsense. This year Blue Monday has been promoted by Mentaline, a young entrepreneur’s new business venture selling online webcam counselling for £50 a session. His previous PR news story was 3 weeks ago: “Teens fake mental health issues to look cool at school” was the headline in the Mirror.
“MENTAL illness is the latest fashion accessory for teenagers, a survey revealed today”, they explain. “Youngsters are faking serious conditions… 34% admitted lying about having a mental illness in the past.” They even have a list of the “top five phantom problems” that teenagers pretend to have: “Eating disorders – 22%. Self-harming – 17%. Addiction – 13%. Depression – 12%. Bipolar disorder– 9%”.
This doesn’t feel like a constructive contribution to stigma, or the perception of serious mental illnesses. The figures are also spectacularly unlikely. I asked 10Yetis PR (who say they did the survey themselves) who was surveyed, what proportion of teens responded, what the basic demographics were, and so on. These seem like very serious allegations about a very sensitive issue, and good quality evidence would be nice. They have yet to answer.
Meanwhile the piece in the Mirror ends with entrepreneur Jesper Buch castigating teenagers over their supposed bad behaviour for which his PR company cannot even be bothered to concoct decent evidence. “Many young people are too quick to say ‘I’m depressed’ or try to gain attention by pretending to have some kind of personal issue,” he explains, with mind-bending crassness. “Your teenage years should be spent enjoying life, not convincing people that you have issues that should be taken extremely seriously.” And so on.
Bullshit is a slippery slope. At the top is an okay charity endorsing fatuous PR nonsense as a one-off, and normalising it. At the bottom, the health correspondent of a major national newspaper is standing in a river of sewage, shouting at a million readers that teenagers are malingerers who invent serious mental health problems. All I suggest is that you should think a bit before you step onto the crest.