True or False: Depression and Suicide Rates Rise During the Holiday Season
by Jacquelyn Rudis
Many people, health professionals and laymen alike, believe that depression, anxiety, and suicide rates rise during the holidays. The media often links suicides during this time of year to the “holiday blues.” However, various studies have shown no relationship between depression and suicide, and the holiday season. In fact, researchers found that depression rates and suicides actually drop during the winter months and peak in the spring.
Evidence for the Health Claim
The reason behind the claim that depression rates and suicides rise during the holidays is that holiday cheer amplifies loneliness and hopelessness in people who have lost loved ones, or who have high expectations of renewed happiness during the holiday season, only to be disappointed. Others think the increase in anxiety and gloominess is caused by the unavoidable stress, exhaustion, and frustration that come with preparing for the holidays. One study found that two out of three newspaper stories about suicide or depression from mid-November 1999 to mid-January 2000 made a connection between suicides and the holidays, further encouraging the notion.
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that is closely related to the winter season, and therefore, seems to increase in frequency around the holidays. However, it is important to note that the condition is triggered by the short, dark, cold days of winter and not the actual holidays.
Evidence Against the Health Claim
Various studies have found that depression and suicide rates are not linked to the holidays. Despite the media focus on suicides during the holiday season, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Health Statistics report that suicide rates in the United States are lowest during the winter months and highest in the springtime (the reasons for this are not clear). Some authorities speculate that during springtime, when moods tend to improve after dark, winter days, those with depression may not feel happier while others around them do, thus encouraging suicidal feelings.
An in-depth analysis of all completed suicides in Olmsted County, Minnesota over a 35-year period found no increase in suicides three days before, during, or three days after birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, or the Fourth of July. Another study found that psychiatric visits actually decreased before Christmas and increased again afterwards. One possible explanation is that people who are depressed receive more emotional support than normal from friends and family during the holiday season.
The Olmsted County study also found that suicides are most numerous early in the week and least common on weekends. Some think that this might be due to greater social interaction during the weekends and holidays, which may deter troublesome thoughts.
The Annenburg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania examined national suicide data from 1996 and found that November and December are actually the lowest-ranked months in daily suicides, with January close behind. The organization also analyzed media portrayals of a link between suicide and the holidays, and found that a majority of newspapers inaccurately supported the misconception. Researchers expressed concern that blurring the facts about an issue as serious as suicide could have harmful implications, such as “copycat deaths.”
Contrary to popular belief, depression and suicide rates do not rise around holidays. The media often inaccurately reports such a link, and also tends to blame suicides during the holiday season on depression or anxiety directly related to the holidays. However, studies have shown that people tend to be less likely to commit suicide during the holiday season, perhaps because of an increase in available emotional support.
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