‘Holiday spike’ in suicides is a myth: UPenn study

It is commonly believed that the holiday season season is to blame for a spike in suicides although statistically, it just isn’t true, a new study by UPenn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found.

The study places blame on the media, specifically news media and novels like Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, even as it seeks to debunk the myth, repeats and underscores the common belief that the happy times of the holidays – families reuniting, end-of-year festivities, celebrations everywhere – can make the depressed feel worse, and leads to a spike in suicides.

But researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC), a program of UPenn’s Annenberg School for Communication, found that the media in particular perpetuate the baseless myth.

“In the 2017-18 holiday season, two-thirds of the print news and feature stories that mentioned both the holidays and suicide drew a false connection between them,” the Annenberg Center announced. Those numbers are the same as the 2016-17 season, up from just 50 percent in the 2009-2010 season.

“The holidays can be such a difficult time for so many people, especially when the world is inundating you with cheer,” intoned the Wilmington, Delaware “News Journal” newspaper intoned in December 2017.

“At Christmas, we certainly have all the accoutrements of having a glowing feeling. There is beautiful music, sparkling array of lights in every direction, excitement of family together … so many things that affect our moods. So, why are there so many suicides during the Christmas holiday?” mourned the The Advertiser-Gleam in Guntersville, Ala.

That headline rings hollow given that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which tracks suicide stats, found in 2015 that November and December had the two lowest rates of suicides per day for the entire year (each averaging 111.9 suicides per day).

The highest average suicide-per-day rates were in spring and summer, peaking in the months of May, July and March (averaging 127.94, 127.23 and 126.94 suicides per day across the US., respectively).

“Although many of the stories supporting the myth were published in rural areas, we hope that greater awareness of actual suicide risk will help residents of those regions to better cope with whatever stresses they might experience during the holiday period,” said Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC). 

APPC has been tracking the persistence of the holiday-suicide myth in major media outlets since 1999, and said that in most years, media upheld rather than debunked the myth.

Of even more concern is that reports on this myth may perpetuate suicidal ideation among the depressed, the APPC warned. “For vulnerable individuals who are already contemplating suicide, such news can have contagious effects,” APPC said, advising media to avoid reports that can “increase contagion … especially when there is no basis in fact.”

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. More than 36,000 people take their own lives annually in the U.S., according to the CDC, and more than 374,000 are treated in emergency departments for self-inflicted injuries.

For individuals coping with depression or suicidal ideas, a range of resources are available. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center at www.sprc.org offers resource for people suffering from depression and their loved ones. The U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 nationwide at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).