A myth of increased suicide

Though not everyone is joyful, self-harm actually declines during the holiday season, scientists say

December 19, 2007|By Susan Brink | Susan Brink,Los Angeles Times

It was Christmas Eve when George Bailey stared into the black depths of the river beneath the bridge in Bedford Falls, convinced that the world would be better off without him. That scene from the 1946 movie classic It's a Wonderful Life could well have given birth to the media myth that Christmas is a trigger for increased suicides and episodes of depression.

It is a baseless notion, according to a body of published studies by statisticians who have examined hundreds of thousands of suicides in the United States and around the world. The number of suicides goes down, not up, over the holiday season, by as much as 40 percent.

During the season of good cheer, there are certainly those whose blue mood stands in stark contrast to the season's bright lights and festivities. But pointing to the Christmas season as a cause of increased depression and risk for suicide is just wrong, says Dan Romer, director of the Annenberg Adolescent Risk Communication Institute at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Holiday blues?" asks Dr. Eric Caine, co-director of the center for the study and prevention of suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. "I'm not sure. I just know I get a lot fewer admissions [to the psychiatric ward] over the holidays."

In one of the most thorough examinations of what researchers call acts of deliberate self-harm, which can be an indication of depression, Helen Bergen, research scientist at the University of Oxford, found that Christmas, for most people, is protective.

She and her colleagues reached this conclusion after examining emergency room admission records of 19,346 people in England and looking at daily rates of self-induced injury from 1976 to 2003.

Drug or alcohol overdoses, self-poisoning with gas or other harmful substances, and self-inflicted injuries -- with or without the deliberate intention to die -- all decreased from average levels during the week of Dec. 19-26, Bergen and her colleagues found, and these lower levels held through New Year's Day.

The decrease in rates of self-inflicted harm before, on and immediately after Christmas and into the new year was found regardless of age, family connections or social isolation, the researchers reported in the September issue of Social Science & Medicine.

Even people with family problems were less inclined to attempt to hurt themselves during the holidays.

"These findings are contrary to the popular view that Christmas is a time of stress and arguments," Bergen says. Perhaps, she says, problems within the nuclear family ease instead of intensify when the extended family is around.

Another possible reason that depression and suicide rates fall this time of year is that the season, more than other times, is one of giving.

"People tend to reach out over the holidays," says Dr. Douglas Jacobs, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. Elderly people in nursing homes might suddenly get visitors. People who haven't heard from friends all year might get a card or phone call.

It is only in the past year that most news stories reflected the fact versus the myth about seasonal suicide rates, says Romer, who since 2000 has been tracking trends in media interpretations of the link between holidays and suicide. In a national search of news articles linking the holidays with suicide, he says, 9 percent of news organizations supported the myth in 2006, compared with 57 percent in 2005 and 77 percent in 1999.

This is not to say that the holidays are easy for everyone.

"Some people have unreasonable expectations [that] the holidays have to be happy," says Dr. Ian Cook, director of the UCLA depression research program.

If in-laws are sniping at you about your home, your food and your lifestyle; your 2-year-old has broken his new toys and is wailing; and your sister's teenage daughter is sulking, happiness can be a tall order.

Others are reminded of losses at holiday time. Some churches have started offering a special service -- more somber and reflective than joyful -- on Dec. 21, often the darkest day of the year, or Christmas Eve.

"The holidays put on us an expectation for a certain set of feelings," says the Rev. Larry Rice, pastor at the St. Thomas More Newman Center at Ohio State University, which will celebrate a "Blue Christmas" Mass on Christmas Eve. "Everyone around them seems joyful, and they're not feeling that."

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Irvine, Calif., will hold its second Blue Christmas service tomorrow. The event recognizes that traditional services can be hard on people who have lost loved ones.

It is that kind of cultural reaction -- an extra dose of caring -- that probably adds to the psychological protection of a season that seems to insist on happiness. No matter how bad it might seem, holiday rituals add up to more good than bad, buffering adults and children against depression and anxiety.

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