- Contrary to popular belief, the risk of suicide does not increase during the holiday season.
- During the 2017-2018 holiday season, nearly two thirds of the publications mentioning the holidays and suicide in the same articles falsely linked the two.
- Research has found that suicide rates typically increase during the spring, not the winter months.
In 2017, suicide was ranked as the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the
Over 47,000 people lost their lives to suicide that year, but contrary to popular belief, the rates of suicide were actually lower over the holidays than they were at other times of year.
But the 2017-2018 holiday season also marked a year when nearly two thirds of the publications mentioning the holidays and suicide in the same articles falsely linked the two.
This means journalists have been guilty of further perpetuating a myth even the
April Foreman, PhD, is a suicidologist, executive committee member of the American Association of Suicidology and co-founder of Suicide Prevention and Social Media (SPSM).
She told Healthline that there is no one scientific answer as to why people tend to automatically assume suicide rates go up over the holidays, but that there are some best guesses. And one of those guesses starts with the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
First released in 1946, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been a holiday favorite for decades. The storyline revolves around the main character considering suicide.
The ultimate message, Foreman says, is that the holidays are a great time to stop and reflect back on what we have. But, she explained, “We’ve been telling that kind of narrative for a long time. And of course, Clarence stops him, shows him what the world would be like without him, and he goes home and the town raises money and things turn out better than he thought they would.”
She added that the problem with the movie, and the way we use suicide in narratives in general, is that it doesn’t accurately portray what suicide and suicidality look in real life.
“Suicidal thoughts and feelings tend to happen to lots of people and come up as the result of varying circumstances,” Foreman explained. “They tend to happen during the warmer months. Suicide rates go up in March. Our crisis calls go up in the summer.”
She added, “In the winter months, you also have less light and therefore less energy. People may not realize this, but it takes a lot of energy to kill yourself. That’s not to say that suicides don’t happen during the winter time. But you can feel bad and you can feel depressed, but acting on suicidal thoughts takes energy.”
She said the holiday season often acts as a buffer of sorts to suicidal thoughts. In part, this is due to all the events and social gatherings that happen during the season. These can actually insulate a person from suicidality.
“We have a good four to six weeks of inviting each other in, connecting. If we treated each other the same way we do over the holidays all year long, it would be very preventative,” Foreman said.
All that being said, it’s important to remember that just because suicide rates are lower during the winter months doesn’t mean people aren’t acting on suicidal thoughts at all. They are.
Foreman emphasized that those who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts should seek immediate help regardless of the season.
Foreman points out that the problem with the holiday suicide myth is that, “When people misattribute things to the holidays, they might be ignoring the real causes.”
She told the story of a small town where suicides were actually going up repeatedly over the holidays.
The local leaders attributed the increase in suicides to the holiday season, but when researchers looked further into the issue they discovered the local petrochemical industry tended to lay a lot of people off around the holiday season.
In that case, identifying other possible reasons for what was going on gave scientists and local community members better tools for addressing and preventing suicides, as opposed to simply misattributing them to the holidays.
Suicidality is often just one in of a range of symptoms that can accompany anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses.
“I wouldn’t be so fast to blame it on the holidays, to blame it on something external,” Foreman said.
She pointed out that’s because there are often a lot of other things contributing to feelings of suicide. It’s not just one holiday season, or one set of circumstances, making a person feel that way.
“I’m not saying your own particular circumstances might not be getting you down,” Foreman explained.
She pointed out that some people may have very real reasons for experiencing an increase in feelings of depression and suicidality around the holidays.
“You could have seasonal affective disorder or trauma from your family history that does increase these feelings for you this time of year,” she said.
She explained that every person, and every set of circumstances, is unique. But in general, the holiday season isn’t causing thoughts of suicide to suddenly start happening for most people.
There are usually underlying experiences or circumstances taking place that will contribute to these thoughts all year long.
Of course, the fact that fewer people on average tend to die by suicide around the holidays doesn’t make any difference for a person who is experiencing suicidal thoughts.
“People who are suicidal are by definition ambivalent,” said clinical and forensic psychologist Joel Dvoskin, PhD, who specializes in managing suicide risk. “They’re not dead, which means there’s a part of them that wants to live. But they’re suicidal, which means there’s a part of them that wants to die.”
He said that for anyone experiencing these feelings themselves, it’s very real, and very traumatic — regardless of the time of year.
He encourages anyone experiencing thoughts of suicide to reach out for help in whatever way they can. Find a therapist, call or text a helpline, or even go to an emergency room at a hospital.
“If you’re suicidal, they have to help you,” Dvoskin said. “It’s not the best way, but if there’s no other option in the moment, it will help you to get through the night. And sometimes, when you make it through the night, in the morning other options come into your awareness.”
While the holidays may not increase suicidal thoughts, this time of year can sometimes increase the grief that surrounds the loss of a loved one to suicide.
Foreman says that people don’t always know how to acknowledge the loss of someone who died by suicide. And that can make them want to shut down around the holidays, not wanting to celebrate at all, because they aren’t comfortable talking about their loved one who’s no longer here.
“I always tell people I’m sorry for their loss when I learn they’ve lost someone to suicide,” Foreman said. “And then I ask for the person’s name, because I think that’s a thing we can do to erase the shame.”
She suggests letting people know you are thinking about them and their lost loved ones around the holidays, using the name of the deceased whenever possible, and making space for that person who is no longer here.
“Suicide, because we don’t understand it well, almost feels worse and becomes a harder loss to acknowledge,” Foreman said. “Helping to normalize the topic of suicide so that we can remember with love the people who died by suicide, just as we would remember a loved one who passed another way, can help families erase the stigma and shame.
If you or someone you love are dealing with thoughts of suicide this holiday season or any time of year, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to help you get the resources you need.