Like many of us, I was under the impression that suicide rates spike during the year-end holiday season. Watching others frolic when you’re feeling alone can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, right? Not so, I found out. In fact, the opposite is true: fewer people take their own lives in December than any other month.
Taking one’s own life is a serious public health problem that impacts not only the victim but the survivors: relatives, friends, and the community. Suicide is death caused by personal injury with the intent to die.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the nation. In 2017, “10.6 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.2 million made a plan, and 1.4 million attempted suicide.” That year, more than 47,000 people succeeded in taking their own lives (averaging about one death every 11 minutes).
The rate of self-inflicted homicide peaks in the spring and fall seasons. Despite these numbers, a 2010 study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) at the University of Pennsylvania “found that the winter holiday suicide myth continues to be reinforced in the press. Almost half of the newspaper articles written during the 2009 year-end holiday season linked to suicide and the so-called “hap-happiest time of year.”
APPC should know. The organization has been keeping tabs on holiday suicide reporting since 2000. Dan Romer, who directs the APPC’s Adolescent Communication Institute which performed the review, pointed out the double trouble this failure to fact-find presents:
“It is unfortunate that the holiday-suicide myth persists in the press. Aside from misinforming the public, the sort of reporting misses an opportunity to shed light on the more likely causes of suicide.”
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the APPC, agreed and added:
“The press has an important role to play in debunking the holiday-suicide myth. It is essential that the public be given accurate information on this important subject.”
People who are contemplating taking their own lives are judged to have serious mental issues and are especially “vulnerable to media reports of deaths by suicide, particularly those that describe the method or glorify the act,” according to the APPC.
The CDC, the National Institute of Mental Health, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the APPC, and other helping organizations have developed guidelines for media coverage of suicide cases. ReportingOnSuicide.org also provides detailed recommendations for covering suicide reports in the press without adding fuel to the fire.
The American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide (AFPS) has a web page dedicated to journalists tasked with writing up a suicide story.
Based on more than ten years of data collection, the AFPS says that suicide rates are highest in the spring, peaking in April, and generally fall below the average during the winter months. The suicide rate in December consistently ranks lowest – not highest.
The myth of rampant holiday life-taking may have sprung from the very real medical condition called SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder. People with SAD become depressed during the cold, dark days of winter. SAD can be treated by sitting in front of artificial lights regularly to supplement diminished daylight.
Barbara Cataneo of Maryland founded the Triple S suicide loss survivors – and overdose – support group after her life partner and future husband Chris Farley killed himself on June 12, 2016, in the couple’s bedroom five days before he turned 51 years old. The bereaved woman was understandably upset:
“I lost my best friend that day.”
Over 20 years later, Susan LeVee is still trying to cope with her sister’s intentional overdose from the anti-depression medication she had been taking:
“Suicide leaves a different kind of hole in your heart.”
Joining a support group (or starting one if there aren’t any near you) can help ease the pain of such a great loss. According to LeVee, there is strength in numbers:
“I want people to know that they are not alone. None of us thought we would ever be in this situation. But we help each other. We have a bond.”
Romer said that the notion that suicide peaks in December have been hard to dispel after making some headway in previous holiday seasons:
“It’s disappointing to see that this myth hasn’t gone away. After two years in which debunking stories dominated, we’ve seen a comeback in misinformation about the holiday-suicide myth.”
To help and support a loved one who is at risk of suicide, include that person in your holiday celebration but refrain from judgment or negative criticism.
If you feel your life is hopeless with no way out, get help any time from the national suicide prevention lifeline (1-800-273-TALK), a 24/7 service that assists individuals struggling with suicidal crises.