Many Americans believe that suicide rates spike every time the holiday season comes around. There’s just one catch: It’s not true.
Yet, a new analysis reveals that 56% of stories published last year in U.S. newspapers that touched on a potential connection between the holidays and suicide perpetuated the falsehood. Only 44% debunked the notion.
When it comes to suicide rates, “we have consistently found that the winter months of November, December and January are the lowest, or close to lowest, every year, and there is no evidence of a surge in suicides during the end-of-year holidays,” said Dan Romer, research director for the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
Romer and his Annenberg colleagues have conducted an analysis of suicide rates and media coverage of suicide during the holidays for more than two decades.
The team used data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine what the suicide trends truly are.
At the same time, each year the researchers review how coverage in American newspapers is framing the issue. Are media outfits perpetuating confusion, or are they bursting the misinformation balloon?
The researchers found that there was an overall rise in suicides in 2021, amounting to 14 out of every 100,000 Americans. That’s a rise compared with both 2019 and 2020, but lower than the 14.2 rate seen back in 2018.
But when broken down by month, the 2021 figures revealed that, on average, fewer suicides took place in December compared with any other month. Instead, the month with the highest suicide rate was August.
But despite a multi-year effort to get newspapers aligned with the facts on suicide, the review of 25 articles published between Nov. 15, 2021, and Jan. 31, 2022 — all of which focused on suicides over the holidays — revealed that 56% regurgitated the holiday-suicide myth, while only 44% made a point of debunking it.
And the problem is not new. The analysis revealed that since 1999 most years saw more newspaper stories perpetuating the myth than challenging it.
Romer highlighted a number of factors driving the myth.
In part, he said, “We think the idea is motivated by the good intention of promoting care for those who might experience stress or what is called the holiday blues during the end of the year.”
At the same time, Romer noted that many journalists and columnists — and even the psychologists and psychiatrists they interview — appear to be misinformed. More cynically, there’s also the possibility that articles are fashioned to get maximum attention by going “against the grain of the good cheer over the holidays.”
The goal of the analysis is to “alert journalists and the public about this myth in the hopes that it will discourage repetition of this idea, since it serves no useful purpose, and may even have harmful effects if it produces contagion among those who might be in crisis and considering suicide over this period,” Romer said.
Most people who are not at high risk for suicide would not react in this way, Romer stressed, “just those in crisis mode.”
But the risk is that for those vulnerable people who are already having suicidal thoughts, this kind of misinformation might persuade them to “imitate what others do, and thinking that a lot of others are dying by suicide could push them to do the same thing,” he said.
“It’s unfortunate that the myth that suicide rates increase around the winter holidays continues, since studies have shown that’s just not the case,” agreed Dr. Alecia Vogel-Hammen, assistant fellowship director for research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Though not involved in the study, Vogel-Hammen acknowledged the need for ensuring that those who are feeling down over the holidays “get the support they need by reaching out to family, friends, medical professionals, or the 988 helpline.
“But let’s not sensationalize the risk of suicide, or give people the impression that this is a time when more people are dying by suicide,” she said. “When the media emphasizes a false risk, it can be harmful to those who are struggling, as it makes it seem like a more common event.”
And that, Vogel-Hammen added, raises the risk for precisely the sort of “contagion” effect highlighted by Romer.
There’s more on the suicide-holiday myth at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
SOURCES: Dan Romer, PhD, research director, Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Alecia Vogel-Hammen, MD, PhD, assistant professor, child and adolescent psychiatry, and assistant fellowship director for research, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, Mo.; September 2022, Vital Statistics Rapid Release, National Vital Statistics System, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.