Debunking the Holiday Suicide Myth

Stress, family conflict, loneliness – do those words describe your holiday traditions? If the season is so full of despair, why do so many of us look forward to the last couple months of the year with such joyous anticipation? For some, the holidays are undoubtedly a difficult time. Expectations run high and often go unfulfilled; tough economic times put a damper on the good cheer; and family rifts and personal losses complicate even the happiest celebrations. But if you’re paying attention to the media hype about lives unraveling and people giving it all up, chances are holiday misery is over-exaggerated. In a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, half of media reports on suicide in 2009 perpetuated the myth that suicide is prevalent during the holidays.

The Reality: Holidays Are (Mostly) Joyful

In actuality, studies have found little evidence that depression reaches epidemic proportions around the holidays (except for those with seasonal affective disorder, which increases during the winter months). In addition, incidents of self-harm decrease around the holidays, reports a study in the journal Social Science & Medicine. What’s more, suicide rates actually go down in December and are highest in spring, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a Mayo Clinic study that reviewed suicides rates over a 35-year period, there was no notable relationship between the holidays and suicides. Are people just trying to put on a happy face to get through the holidays, only to face their demons in the New Year? A number of studies show this may be the case, with men’s suicide rates and psychiatric visits increasing shortly after the holidays. Of course, it also may be that between family get-togethers and the spirit of giving, people have better supports in place around the holidays

Don’t Ignore the Signs

The news isn’t all good. Other serious problems increase during the holidays, and not because of the weather. The risk of heart attack is higher; homicide rates go up. And for those who aren’t feeling the glad tidings like the people around them, especially if they’ve recently lost loved ones, jobs or significant relationships, the holidays can be an isolating and lonely time. Regardless of when it happens, suicide is a serious public health problem. It is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., costing more than 36,000 people their lives each year. In most cases, suicide is the result of long-term mental illness, not a passing case of the winter blues. But people undoubtedly take their lives around the holidays, many of whom could’ve been helped if someone had reached out in time. Is someone you love at risk for depression, self-harm or suicide? Look for:

  • Threats of self-harm or voicing a desire to hurt or kill oneself
  • Feeling hopeless, angry, anxious or trapped
  • Acting recklessly without regard for life
  • Escalating patterns of substance abuse
  • Withdrawing from friends, family and activities
  • Changes in diet or sleep patterns

If you’re one of the many Americans who finds great nostalgia and joy in the holiday season, take heart: All signs point to the fact that holiday rituals do more good than harm. If you’re experiencing the holiday blues, there are plenty of people sharing in your pain and help is available year-round.

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