By Regina Boyle Wheeler for Everyday Health
If you believe that more people die by suicide over the holidays, you’re buying into a long-perpetuated myth. Suicide rates are actually the lowest in December and rise in the spring and fall, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Myths like this can create an almost self-fulfilling prophecy that the holidays are supposed to be a hard time,” says Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., a psychology professor at California State University, Los Angeles, with a private practice in Santa Monica. The myth is dangerous “because suggestibility can contribute to people acting out or, at a minimum, normalizing sadness during the holidays,” she says.
The Origins Of The Holiday Suicide Myth
How did this myth get started in the first place? “We really don’t know, but we have speculated that the movie 'It’s a Wonderful Life,' which has been shown over and over during the holidays, may have triggered the association between the stress of the holidays and thoughts of suicide, even in otherwise happy people,” says Dan Romer, Ph.D., director of the Adolescent Communication Institute of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Romer also speculates that the holiday blues that some people experience may play into the belief that there's a greater risk during the holidays, especially for those who are alone or have lost loved ones during the past year.
Further aggravating the situation, he notes, is that the myth is perpetuated in the media year after year. Romer and his team began tracking press reports about the holidays and suicide in 1999. On average, they found more stories repeating the myth than debunking it. During the 2012-2013 holiday period for instance, almost three quarters of the newspaper articles that mentioned suicide during the holidays repeated the myth.
Suicide Warning Signs And Prevention At The Holidays And Beyond
Still, suicides do happen in the winter months. People who are not socially connected are of particular concern during the holidays, says Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., the director of research and education at the Glendon Association in Santa Barbara, Calif., and a lecturer on suicide prevention.
“One of the things that drive suicidal behavior is the feeling that you don’t belong and even feeling like you’re a burden to the people closest to you,” Firestone says. “I think when people are suicidal, they see things through the filter of their negative thoughts. And so their family and friends may care about them a lot, but they are feeling like they don’t belong and are a burden.”
Worsening depression is often a warning sign of an increased risk for suicide, says Victor Schwartz, M.D., a psychiatrist and medical director of the Jed Foundation, a New York nonprofit organization dedicated to suicide prevention among college students. Signs of deepening depression include worsening self-care, withdrawal from usual connections with family and friends or activities usually considered pleasurable, increased irritability, increased use of alcohol or other substances and worsening sleep, Schwartz says.
More immediate warning signs to watch for, he says, include:
- Talking or writing about life being worthless or not worth living
- Speaking about a plan or intention to harm oneself or others
- Seeking means to self-harm
“These last items would suggest a more immediate and potentially emergency situation,” he says. Don’t leave the person alone and remove any item that could be used in a suicide attempt. Call 911 or take the person to the emergency room.
If you or a loved one is nearing a crisis point, reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline staffs a hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255) 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including holidays.
“It is important to recognize that there are ways to get help for depression and substance abuse problems," Schwartz says. "It is better to get help sooner -- before problems get too serious or reach a crisis level. Treatment helps and can saves lives. There are people, clinics, clinicians, and organizations out there that are working to support those having mental health challenges. If you are worried about yourself or a friend, reach out for help."
Debunking The Holiday Suicide Myth originally appeared on Everyday Health.