It’s the myth that just won’t go away: Every year, news stories, TV shows, movies, and other media perpetuate the idea that suicide is more common during the holidays.
The truth is suicides don’t go up during the holidays. In fact, January and December typically see the lowest suicide rates every year.
Here, for example, are the suicide numbers for 2014, from a report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania:
The exact numbers vary from year to year, but the overall trend consistently holds up. As a review of the research by Rachel Vreeman and Aaron Carroll of Indiana University found, suicides are often least common during the holiday months and most common during some of the warmer months.
Still, the myth of the holiday-suicide connection persists. According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center, about half of news stories during the current and previous holiday season that mentioned the link between suicide and the holidays perpetuated the myth.
Debunking the holiday-suicide connection isn’t solely about accuracy
The Annenberg Public Policy Center argues that this myth is dangerous: It could promote what’s called “suicide contagion,” in which exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors — whether through friends, family, or media — can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors. So by perpetuating the myth that suicide is more common during the holidays, faulty media reports may contribute to more suicides by somewhat normalizing the act during the winter months.
“It only affects people who are already contemplating suicide. So it’s not that average people, if they hear a suicide story at any given time, are more likely to go out and end their lives,” Dan Romer, research director at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, told me. “But for those people who are vulnerable — of which there could be some at any point, including the holidays — we don’t think it’s a good idea to be telling people that others are thinking of or committing suicide to a greater degree.”
If the myth is wrong, how did it begin in the first place? Romer said we don’t really know for sure. But it’s possible that some people are just “going overboard” with a connection between the “holiday blues” and suicide. He said, “The days are shorter. There’s not as much sunlight. There’s a thing called seasonal affective disorder. You put all of those things together, it might seem gloomier this time of year. And people might feel nostalgic about things that have happened over the year. All of those things, combined, lead to a plausible story.”
As for why suicide is more common at other times of the year, Romer offered some ideas: “Longer days [and] more sun, some people speculate that people have more energy during those circumstances. And if they’re going to go through with a plan to end their lives, they’re more likely to do it under those conditions.” Still, he cautioned that we don’t know for certain.
The one thing we do know, though, is that the link between suicide and the holidays is false — and dangerous.
If you are considering suicide, please seek help through the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.