It’s often thought to be common knowledge that deaths by suicide spike in the holiday months between November and January. We see it as a plot device in classic holiday movies such as It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, many people face the stress of traveling in inclement weather to visit family that may be powder kegs of controversial conversations, and we even see news articles warn us about it. These all seem to support the idea of holiday season suicides, but then why doesn’t any data support this claim?
In reality, winter is often a time of decreased stress. Suicidologist April Foreman PhD, says, “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.” It also helps that most people tend to voluntarily hunker down after the holidays are over. Less pressure to socialize all the time reduces the stress of feeling like you have to be “on” all the time and lessens opportunities of FOMO. Many jobs tend to slow down during the winter as well.
Statisically, deaths by suicide decrease in the holiday months and peak in the spring and summer, and this has been known for almost fifty years. Yet, in a 2021 study analyzing news stories related to holiday suicides, about 54% of articles perpetuated the myth of suicides spiking in the winter, while only 46% warn about the falsities of those articles. While the number of articles is decreasing each year, why these articles are still being published at all is unknown. The problem is that if it remains “common knowledge” that suicides spike in the holidays, it may be harmful to those in crisis at these times, leading them to think it is some how more socially acceptable or understandable for them to make an attempt on their life during these times.
Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Patterns, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, plays a role in the continuation of the myth. Fall and winter’s shorter days can lead to chemical changes in the brain. Less time in the sun means lower levels of Vitamin D, which has been connected with less energy and lower mood levels. Additionally, with shorter days, the brain starts producing the sleep hormone Melatonin sooner, making the body feel tired. Antidepressants and supplements are a common solution for these chemical imbalances. Some of these symptoms can be overcome with behavioral changes such as making an effort to spend more time outdoors, eating nutritious meals, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and following a regular sleep schedule. Other options include using light boxes to stimulate Vitamin D production and using light bulbs that simulate natural daylight. These might not be enough for some people, so finding a therapist or counselor can help with working through negative thought patterns and adjusting personal expectations. These could be proactively taking on less work or social obligations, setting realistic goals to make it through the winter, and finding activities that boost mood while not draining your energy.
Suicide is a very complex health issue that communities face. There is never one cause for someone to experience or act on suicidal thoughts. Rather, it is more like a constantly tilting scale of risk factors on one side and protective factors on the other. Anytime a major stressor is introduced into someone’s life, if the risk factors outweigh the protective factors enough, they can be put into a state of crisis.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988, or chat online at 988lifeline.org
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