It’s the holiday season and this can be a time of hardship as well as happiness. Here’s hoping you’re feeling more of the latter…
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The Myth of Suicide and Christmas
For some time, I was under the impression that suicide rates increased during the holidays. I mean, it fit well with my contention that the widespread (often-faked) merriment of the holidays contrasted markedly with the internal state of depressed people, in the process sending them over the edge.
But, as I as is my tendency, I investigated this belief and discovered I was… wrong.
Apparently, I am not alone in my misconception, it seems that hauling out the discussions of holiday depressions has became as traditional as hauling out the Christmas decorations, singing, Christmas carols, and getting drunk at office parties. However, the idea that more people kill themselves during the holidays is as true as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — it is simply false.
For starters, statistical data make it quite clear that April, not December, is the cruelest month. Daily suicide reports analyzed over a period of decades by a range of researchers show that suicide rates peak in the spring. In some years, there is a second, less significant, rise in late summer and early fall. However, year after year, people are least likely to commit suicide in December or January.
Even looking at all the major holidays throughout the year, none is associated with an increase in suicide rates, regardless of sex, race, or method of suicide. One researcher reviewing data from the 1970s showed that the suicide rate actually declines markedly a few days before most major holidays and stays low until they are over. In some cases, there’s been post-holiday rise, but I don’t see it as statistically significant — it doesn’t offset the drop. In addition, most studies haven’t confirmed the post-holiday rebound effect. However, every investigation I have looked at has found that the holidays themselves either lower the suicide rate, or at worst, has co-relationship to it at all.
I realize there’s also the issue that just because someone doesn’t get to the point of suicide doesn’t mean he or she is happy. But even on less dramatic measures, there is evidence to challenge the conventional wisdom that people become sadder during the holidays. The number of admissions to psychiatric hospitals, and visits to emergency rooms typically decline during December. This also ties in to the notion that there is a winter component to depression, or the “blues.” There are some individuals with a specific depressive disorder called seasonal affective disorder (SAD) who experience distress during the winter. But it affects very small numbers when compared to depression generally speaking. There are multiple reasons for that, and what I’m addressing here is suicide, depression, and seasonality.
The more I thought about it, the more it makes sense that the holidays can serve to lift spirits. For example, some positives of the holidays that often go unnoticed or taken for granted include: the gathering friends and relatives that serves to protect vulnerable people; Christmas celebrations often evoke sweet memories, hopefulness, and a renewed outlook; there is an increased awareness of and sensitivity to social safety nets.
And yes, sometimes the pressure of the holidays (often self-inflicted) can stress us out beyond the breaking point, but if you take the time to address the feelings you have about the holidays (specifically Christmas), plan ahead, and maintain a realistic perspective about what you can afford, you can make your holidays special.
Finally, if you make sure to surround yourself with loved ones who are supportive of you and positive, and let go of your expectations to make time for what truly matters, you’ll be able to create memories that will carry you in the future.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…