Nearly half of stories about holidays and suicide published during last year’s holiday season perpetuated the myth that they increase, according to a new analysis conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
“This information is simply not correct,” Dan Romer, research director of the APPC, told The Huffington Post. “This has been a hard myth to debunk.”
The APPC has been tracking media reporting on the suicide and holidays misconception since 1999, using the Nexis database. In that time frame, there were only two holiday seasons where the majority of related coverage discredited the myth. Typically, there’s an even split between quashing and affirming the idea, according to the APPC data.
There’s no definitive insight into the roots of how this myth began, but Romer has a few theories. Pop culture, for starters, tends to highlight the idea that the colder months are associated with more desperate or lonely thoughts. Take the classic holiday film “It’s A Wonderful Life,” in which the main character contemplates his life and impact, for example.
The winter blues may also be a factor. Seasonal affective disorder, a behavioral health condition often coupled with depression and associated with a decrease in sunlight, is typically discussed this time of year. That can lead to the reinforcement of this myth, making it essentially a forgone conclusion, Romer said.
Why this misconception could be dangerous
Of course, just because this data point is false doesn’t mean individuals should ignore the mental health pitfalls of the season. Keeping a close eye on triggers is critical ― particularly during a period that’s anecdotally linked with increased stress.
But perpetuating the myth that the holidays might drive people to self-harm can be dangerous. Research shows that publishing detailed stories on suicides can lead to copycat acts, or suicide contagion, a very real effect journalists are instructed to be wary of during their reporting.
Those who may be having suicidal ideations can see a story about someone ― or a group of people ― in their same circumstance and think that if suicide was the answer for those individuals, it must be for them, too.
“This is an issue from a public health standpoint,” Romer said. “It has the potential to influence people about taking their own lives and it’s just not a good thing to be telling someone.”
What media can do moving forward
Experts say media coverage that includes evidence that treatment works is effective. It not only sends the message that a person struggling isn’t alone, but there are ways to manage the condition.
“News stories mentioning suicide around the holidays may seek to be helpful, but they can misinform people and fail to provide advice on how to cope with stress during the holidays,” Romer said in a statement about the research. “Even a casual reference or an unverified assertion in a quotation can end up supporting the myth and potentially discourage those vulnerable to suicide from seeking the care they need.”
This doesn’t mean that outlets shouldn’t report on phenomenons like SAD, however. There’s still a very real risk of these conditions, and it simply requires responsible reporting of information.
“The holiday blues exist and we should absolutely be talking about that,” Romer said. “There are still people who can be suicidal around the holidays. That doesn’t go away. There just needs to be very clear communication about all the ways those people can get help.”
This includes featuring places where those individuals can find support, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the Crisis Text Line. It’s also useful to feature stories of recovery from mental health issues where possible.
Bottom line: Talking about suicide is necessary, but spreading falsehoods isn’t the way to do it.