Perhaps George Bailey is to blame. The lead character in Frank Capra’s “It’s Wonderful Life” stares at that bridge on Christmas Eve, thinking about committing suicide and perhaps sparking the conventional wisdom that the suicide rate rises around Christmastime.
That’s been the thinking in the 60-plus years since that movie was released, giving rise to a myth that is almost as storied as Santa Claus, one researcher says.
“It is totally a myth,” says Dan Romer, research director of the Adolescent Communication Institute of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “December is actually a low point for suicides.”
Mr. Romer has been tracking media reports of the December suicide myth in America for more than 10 years. He started at the turn of the millennium, when there was an uptick in the number of people who thought the world would end when the calendar hit 2000.
At that time, he found just 23 percent of news reports debunked the suicide myth. By 2006, 91 percent of stories were mentioning that the believed increase was not true. By last holiday season, however, Mr. Romer found that the number of reports debunking the myth was down to 62 percent, meaning more than one-third of stories were still reporting that suicides increase over the holidays.
The peak time for suicides is May, says Paula Clayton, a psychiatrist and medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 33,000 Americans commit suicide each year.
“Depression may be higher in the winter,” Dr. Clayton says, “but winter depression goes away when spring comes.”
Dr. Clayton points out that more than 90 percent of the people who attempt suicide are severely depressed, a much more serious diagnosis than for someone who is suffering from the “holiday blues.”
For people with serious mental illness, the mood does not lighten in May.
The myth of the spike in suicide rates in December might be intensified by the emotionally trying times that can come with the holidays, Dr. Clayton says. There is the stress of being around extended family, of trying to create a “picture-perfect” holiday, of mourning loved ones who have died and frustration over how to pay the extra bills that come with the holidays.
Researchers at Indiana University last year looked at holiday-related medical myths. Drs. Rachel C. Vreeman and Aaron E. Carroll compiled data from several studies that debunked the suicide myth. They published their findings on the myth and other holiday yarns, including that poinsettias are poisonous and that sugar makes children hyperactive, in the British Medical Journal.
Not only do suicides drop at the holidays, but some studies suggest that suicide attempts and suicidal tendencies also seem to decline in winter.
The journal Social Science and Medicine published an analysis of more than 19,000 emergency-room admissions in England from 1976 to 2003. Lead researcher Helen A. Berger of Oxford University concluded that self-induced injuries, drug overdoses, self-poisonings and other suicidal behaviors all dropped below typical weekly rates from Dec. 19 through Jan. 1 each year.
That doesn’t mean people should ignore someone they think might be deeply depressed, Dr. Clayton says. Families should be aware of warning signs of someone who truly may be suicidal.
• Threatening to hurt or kill oneself or talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself.
• Looking for ways to kill oneself by seeking access to firearms, pills or other means.
• Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide when these actions are out of the ordinary for the person.
• Feeling hopeless.
• Feeling rage or uncontrolled anger or seeking revenge.
c Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities - seemingly without thinking.
• Feeling trapped - like there’s no way out.
• Increasing alcohol or drug use.
• Withdrawing from friends, family and society.
• Feeling anxious, agitated or unable to sleep - or sleeping all the time.
• Experiencing dramatic mood changes.
• Seeing no reason for living or having no sense of purpose.
At least one suicide prevention group also has taken to task the way the media reports suicides. The nonprofit Suicide Prevention Resource Center urges those in the media to not glamorize suicide attempts among celebrities or give details of suicides, such as what method a person uses in a suicide attempt. The group also urges the media to stop oversimplifying the reasons for suicides, such as “He was depressed because it was Christmas” or “because his girlfriend broke up with him.”