The holiday season is filled with celebrations, gatherings and cheer. But for some people, this time of the year can be bring on anxiety and loneliness. In fact, there is a commonly held notion that rates of suicide are higher during holiday times. But is this idea rooted in fact or fiction? Let's look at the evidence.
A large study of 188,047 suicides in the U.S. in the 1970s showed that certain holidays (Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas) were associated with an unusually low risk of suicide, while other holidays (New Year's Day, Labor Day and the Fourth of July) were associated with a low risk of suicide just before the holiday and a high risk afterward [source: Phillips and Willis]. These data undermine the idea of a December holiday-suicide link.
The American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide has been tracking rates of suicide in the U.S. for more than a decade, and data show that suicide rates are highest in spring with a peak in April, and are generally below average in winter months [source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention]. Of all the months of the year, rates of suicide are consistently lowest in December.
The origin of the myth that suicide increases during the holiday season is unclear. One condition that may be contribute to the perception that suicide risk increases during the holidays is seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression associated with the cold, dark days at the onset of winter, not any particular December holiday [source: Rudis]. The false notion that suicide is more common around holidays may also be rooted in misleading press coverage. A 2010 study found that approximately 50 percent of the articles on suicide published in the U.S. during the 2009 holiday season perpetuated the myth that rates are highest at this time [source: CDC].
No matter where it began, it's important for prevention efforts that we get a better idea of what factors do contribute to suicide [source: Woo].
Here are a few facts to keep in mind when determining who's at risk. In 2013 there were 41,149 deaths by suicide in the United States, and 80 percent of them were men [source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention]. Women tend to use less lethal methods (for example, medication overdose rather than a gunshot), and their suicide attempts are often nonfatal. Suicides are also more common in people 45 years of age and older.
Another important factor to note is that suicide is more common in the early part of the week (Monday to Thursday). This could suggest that suicide risk is reduced by increased social interaction, which occurs more often on weekends [source: Rudis].
While there is no clear increase in rates or intensity of depression or suicide around national holidays, participating in holiday traditions may be difficult for people with mental illness. During these times of year, the best way to help a loved one who is at risk is to include them in your holiday festivities without judgment or criticism [source: Gregg-Schroeder].
Given the deep roots of the media-magnified link, it is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Tragically, the incorrect belief that suicide is more common around holidays may hamper prevention efforts when they're needed most.