In A Nutshell
The November, December and January holidays are exciting for some, and depressing for others. It’s the time of year when we reflect on those who are no longer with us, when loneliness seems even more acute . . . so it’s not surprising that more people decide to take their own lives around the holidays than any other time of the year. Only, it’s not true; in fact, suicide rates are the lowest around the holidays, and consistently spike in the springtime. It’s one of those misconceptions that seems to make sense, but unfortunately, it’s a misconception that can be deadly.
The Whole Bushel
The holidays can be a difficult time, whether you’re going through them surrounded by holiday cheer that doesn’t seem to extend to you, facing the first holiday without a loved one, or not looking forward to trying times with a family you don’t see during the rest of the year. There are songs about the holiday blues, movies about it, television shows, all with the similar theme: The holidays are rough. Even some of the most classic holiday stories, like It’s a Wonderful Life, remind us of how depressing the holidays can be.
Add in seasonal affective disorder, extra stress, frustration, and financial burdens, and it’s not surprising that suicide rates spike during this time, right?
Actually, the opposite is true. The University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been collecting data on suicide numbers since 1999, and they’ve found some surprising trends. November, December, and January actually have the lowest rates of suicides per day, and the peak time is actually in the spring months.
In 2010, there were 38,364 suicides in the United States. The month with the most? July. The month with the least? December.
Findings have been supported by an extensive, 35-year study by Minnesota’s Olmstead County, as well as the National Center for Health Statistics.
To go along with this study, the CDC also looked at the number of articles in the media related to the idea of holiday-related suicide. They found that of those written in the 2009–10 holiday season, more than half perpetuated the myth that high suicide rates go along with the holidays. In some years, it’s estimated that as much as 75 percent of media coverage reflects this incorrect notion that suicides are more common during the holidays.
And that can be a dangerous thing. It’s impossible to tell what impact these articles have had on those contemplating taking their own lives during the holiday months, but representatives from the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention warn that it can very possibly be something like an article saying it’s not uncommon for people to take their own lives during the holidays to be the push that helps someone finalize their decision. It validates the feeling that they’re not alone in their despair, and can even suggest that it’s completely normal.
So why is the reverse of what we think, actually true?
It’s thought that people who are going through rough patches tend to receive more emotional support through the holidays, whether it be at home or at work. In some cases, that emotional support might not even be given on purpose, instead just being a natural part of including others in the season of holiday cheer. And in the springtime, when the weather begins to change and the days start to get longer, those with chronic depression see those around them get a boost in their mood, but they’re not feeling it.
Organizations like the CDC stress that there’s no real time of the year that it’s more or less important to monitor those at risk for suicidal thoughts.