Do suicide rates spike during the holidays?

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Is there really a higher suicide rate during the holidays?.

Many believe that depression and suicide rates spike during the holiday season, though this appears to be a myth that has been perpetuated by the media over the years.

It is believed by some that all of the emphasis on family togetherness and good cheer only exacerbate the feelings of loneliness for people who are by themselves during the holidays. People may also think that seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression that worsens during the dark, winter months, may also contribute to a higher rate of depression and suicide around the holidays.

This article reviews some research that demonstrates there is actually no link between increased rates of suicide and the holidays.

Actual rates of suicide during the year

One study reviewed suicide rates in Olmshead County, Minnesota, over the course of the 35 years between 1951 and 1985. This study found that there was no increase in suicides within three days before or after birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and Independence Day.  

The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 1999-2010 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on suicide, and found that November, December and January are actually the months with the lowest rates of suicide per day. Higher rates of suicide were found to be during the summer months.

Media coverage of suicide rates

Despite clear findings that suicide rates are not higher during the holiday season than the rest of the year, the media has propagated the idea that more people tend to end their own lives during the holidays.

 The Annenburg Public Policy center took a closer look at the media's reporting on suicide over the years, and found that over 50% of the media coverage on suicide falsely made a correlation between higher rates of suicide and the holidays.

Psychiatric admissions over the course of the year

Similar to the notion that people end their lives more during the holidays, it is believed that psychiatric admissions increase over the holidays.

This idea is also an urban legend. Several studies were reviewed by Drs. Randy and Lori Sansone to investigate what they refer to as "the Christmas effect on psychopathology," to determine what, if any, correlation the holidays have on psychiatric illnesses.

The Sansones found that despite alcohol related fatalities increasing and the general mood of individuals possibly worsening during the holiday season, overall psychiatric admission rates were lower in general during the holidays. They also reviewed studies that corroborated evidence that suicide rates were lower in the holiday season, as were self-harm behaviors.

The take home message

Despite popular belief often perpetuated by the media, the holidays are not a time where psychiatric illnesses spike and suicide rates are at a high. Psychiatric admissions are actually lower during the holidays as are rates of suicide.

One possible explanation is that the holiday cheer and family may actually help people cope with their problems, and may provide much needed support.

 

If you or someone you know is considering suicide or struggling with any kind of mental health crisis, the National Suicide Lifeline is a resource that is staffed by trained and skilled crisis counselors at all hours:  

National Suicide Lifeline:  (800) 273-TALK (8255)   

Sources

Panser L. A., McAlpine D. E., Wallrichs S.L., et al. (1995). Timing of completed suicides among residents of Olmsted County, Minnesota, 1951-1985. Acta Psychatr Scan, 92(3): 214-219.

Sansone, R. and Sansone, L. (2011). The Christmas effect on psychopathology. Innov Clin Neuropsy, 8(12): 10-13.

University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center (2012). As the national adult suicide rate increases, news stories about suicides during the holidays grow in number.

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