The myth of holiday suicide

Activist asserts that April actually seems to tap into more depression

For the Record

December 14, 2003|By Devin Rose | Devin Rose,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The holiday season is stressful, no doubt. Many people develop a mean case of the holiday blues. But the idea that suicides peak during this time is a myth - one spread by the media.

That's a recent finding from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The center analyzed 67 print articles about suicide that ran from Nov. 8, 1999, through Jan. 15, 2000. About half of them tied suicide to the winter holidays. But, according to health experts, as well the National Center for Health Statistics, suicides drop during the winter months.

"Suicide does not peak during the winter holidays," Dr. Herbert Hendin, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (, said in a press release about the center's study. "Rather than perpetuate this myth, the media ought to turn their attention to the factors that do contribute to suicide."

In an interview, Hendin was asked about those contributing factors.

"Suicide is linked to mental illness, substance abuse, alcoholism," he said. "It's not simply something that is precipitated by some event, like losing a girlfriend or a job that didn't work out."

The winter holidays, with their emphasis on friends, family, gifts and caring, can certainly sadden people lacking in such ties and experiences, Hendin said. "But that is not the same as depression. Depression has a clinical meaning. There is a big difference between being sad and lonely and being suicidal."

Jerry Reed agrees. Reed is executive director of the Suicide Prevention Action Network USA, which was founded by a couple whose adult daughter, while working as a doctor in Chicago, committed suicide.

"Ninety percent of suicides have a mental illness or substance abuse relationship," Reed said. Other risk factors are a history of trauma or abuse, a family history of suicide, previous suicide attempts, isolation and lack of social support, and easy access to legal means of committing the act.

A huge obstacle to prevention, Reed said, is "the veil of secrecy around suicide. Even people who have lost a loved one aren't comfortable saying it directly. But we [in the United States] have consistently lost around 30,000 people a year to suicide. That makes it a very serious public health challenge that we need to address."

So when do suicides tend to peak?

"As T.S. Eliot said, April is the cruelest month," Hendin said. "That has been traditionally the highest month for suicides. In the last couple of years, that hasn't been as clear, but in general, suicides have gone up in April, May and June."

Experts aren't sure why that is, Hendin said. But one theory is that the emergence of spring can be brutal on those who already are predisposed toward suicide.

"Everything is drab and quiet in the winter, and then everything and everybody comes to life in the spring," Hendin said. "If that doesn't happen to you, if everyone is waking up and you're not, that's rough."

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