The myth that suicides increase during the holidays

Analysis finds more than half of media references of ‘holiday-suicide myth’ last year failed to debunk it

Do suicide deaths really spike during the winter holidays, as is so often claimed in the media?

To the contrary: Historically, December has the lowest suicide death rate. Yet the myth that suicide deaths increase in the “jolly season” persists — potentially putting people who are vulnerable at risk, psychologists say.

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Researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found close to 900 media references to the “holiday-suicide myth” over the past 23 years. And in only nine of those 23 years were there more stories debunking the myth than supporting it.

The latest analysis, released Monday, found that during last winter, only 25 stories made the connection between the holidays and rise in suicide, but more than half portrayed it as true.

The holidays and the end of the year can be an emotional time for people, said Dan Romer, a psychologist and research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Some people might feel anxious taking stock of the past year, while others might struggle with the shorter days and Seasonal Affective Disorder. The holidays can be especially difficult for people who don’t have family to spend the occasion with.

Romer said that the holiday-suicide myth might come from a place of good intentions, wanting to help and shed light on a problem. But it can be harmful when suicide is portrayed as a popular way to solve a problem.

“It can have a contagious effect,” he said.

Suicide is a leading cause of death of young people in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The overall number of suicide deaths increased by 35% between 1999 and 2018. The suicide rate declined in 2019 and 2020, but rose again in 2021, when nearly 48,000 people died by suicide.

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The suicide death rate does vary throughout the year, and it is actually the lowest in December. In 2021, there were 15% more suicide deaths in August than there were in December, according to provisional estimates from the CDC.

Romer sees some progress toward ending the myth: Large publications rarely make the false claim that suicide death increases during the holidays anymore. But the myth remains common at smaller, local media outlets, he said.

And while there could be harm in repeating the holiday-suicide myth, that should not discourage anyone from reminding others to reach out to people in their lives who might be lonely or having a hard time during the holiday season.

“We should, of course, be reaching out to people who are in crisis,” Romer said.

If you or anyone you know is thinking of suicide, help is available 24/7:

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline offers help in more than 150 languages. Call or text 988. En Español, marca al 1-888-628-9454. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing, call 1-800-799-4889.

Veterans Crisis Chat is available at 1-800-273-8255 or by text at 838255.

The Trevor Project offers crisis support to LGBTQ+ youth 25 and under. Call 1-866-488-7386, text START to 678678, or start a chat.

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