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December 26, 2012 10:58 AM Myth: More People Commit Suicide Around the Holidays

By Aaron Carroll

From our first book.

Holidays can bring out the worst in us – even as we gather with our family and friends for the purpose of celebrating. Maybe the holidays just put too much pressure on us to pull things together or to put on a show for others. Maybe our families drive us absolutely crazy in ways that only our loved ones can. Or maybe we don’t have friends or families to celebrate with, and the loneliness is just that much worse around the holidays. Plus, many of our holidays fall in cold, dark, winter months, when we expect rates of depression to be higher. For whatever the reason, it makes sense to think that more people commit suicide around the holidays than at other times of the year. After all, the holidays can be a very depressing time for those who have lost loved ones or who are disappointed with themselves in contrast to the holiday cheer. The media has reported on the link between holidays and suicides time and again.

While the popular assumption is that holidays are a risk factor for suicide, people aren’t really any more likely to kill themselves around the holidays than any other time of year. In a study from Japan that looked at suicides between 1979 and 1994, the rate of suicide was the lowest in the days before a holiday, but the highest in the days after the holiday. In contrast, in a study from the United States, the number of suicides within a 35-year period did not increase before, during or after holidays - including birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, or the Fourth of July. However, a smaller study of adolescents in a different part of the United States did show an association between the dates when teenagers attempted suicides and the occurrence of holidays, with a peak in suicide attempts at the end of the school year. Interestingly, in the United States, psychiatric visits actually decrease before Christmas and increase again afterwards. Researchers speculated that this may actually reflect increased emotional and social support during holidays. The United States Centers for Disease Control concluded that holidays do not increase the risk for suicide. Suicide data from Ireland from 1990 to 1998 also failed to connect suicides with the holidays. While Irish women were no more likely to commit suicides on holidays than on any other days, Irish men were actually significantly less likely to commit suicides on holidays.

Furthermore, people are not more likely to commit suicide during the heights of winter darkness and doldrums. Around the world, suicides peak in warmer months and are actually at their lowest in the winter. This pattern was reported as early as 1897 by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, who described how European “suicide reaches its maximum during the fine season, when nature is most smiling and the temperature mildest.” In Finland, a country of long and dark winters, suicides peak in autumn, and are actually at their very lowest in the winter. In a 30-year study of suicides in Hungary between 1970 and 2000, researchers again found peaks of suicide in the summer and the lowest rate of suicides in the winter. Studies of suicide rates from India also reveal peaks in April and May. Studies from the United States reflect this same pattern, with lower rates in November and December than in typically warmer months.

While we try to debunk myths wherever we can find them, we do not want to leave you convinced that suicides won’t happen at particular times of the year. Suicides, and the depressions that often lead up to them, are devastating events at any time. Regardless of whether or not it’s a holiday, the middle of winter or bright and sunny summer, thoughts of wanting to put an end to things or to kill ones self need to be taken seriously. If you or someone you know is having these thoughts, seek professional attention immediately.

[Cross-posted at The Incidental Economist]

Aaron Carroll ,MD, is an associate professor of Pediatrics and the associate director of Children’s Health Services Research at Indiana University School of Medicine.