Why the holiday suicide myth persistsUpdated 11/29/2009 7:21 PM | Comments 39 | Recommend 9E-mail | Print |
EnlargeBy Alejandro Gonzalez, USA TODAY
HELP IS OUT THERE
Suicides are not more common around the holidays. They can happen at any time, and they claim 31,000 lives in the USA each year, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says. If you are thinking about suicide or are worried about someone else, you can get help 24 hours a day by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
For more information, visitsuicidepreventionlifeline.org.
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By Kim Painter, USA TODAY
You could blame George Bailey. In the 1946 holiday film It's a Wonderful Life, that fictional character contemplated suicide on Christmas Eve, possibly giving birth to the idea that suicides climb during the winter holidays.
But moviemaker Frank Capra had it wrong: Study after study shows no such link; in fact, suicide numbers peak in the spring and may even dip in December, according to the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, the holiday suicide myth has amazing staying power.
For the past decade, Dan Romer, a researcher at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, has been tracking mentions of suicide and the holiday season in stories published in U.S. newspapers from mid-November to mid-January. His first study, covering the 1999 holiday season, found that just 23% of stories debunked the myth and the rest reinforced it. By 2006, 91% of stories debunked the myth, and Romer took some credit: Publicizing the facts had nearly killed the myth, he thought.
He was wrong. In the 2007 season, the myth was back in half of stories, he says. And Romer just completed his analysis of 2008 holiday coverage. He found that 38% of stories supported the myth and 62% debunked it – an improvement he attributes partly to a myth-busting report published last December in the British Medical Journal.
He can't explain why nearly four in 10 stories still linked suicide and the holidays. "No one does it maliciously," he says. "I think they are trying to help people."
But the myth may harm people instead.
"It might unnecessarily put people on their guard or increase their anxiety," says Ronald Pies, a psychiatrist at Tufts University School of Medicine, via e-mail. Worse, he says, some people "on the brink" of self-harm might feel encouraged to follow through when they read or hear that holiday suicides are common. The myth might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Romer agrees: "You don't want to convey the message that this is acceptable or that there's a good reason to do it."
But why does this particular myth persist?
One reason may be that the holidays fall during a time of year that can be trying for many people, says Paula Clayton, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. People with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) tend to become depressed as days get shorter and darker. They come out of their depression in the spring.
Meanwhile, some people do suffer short-term blues linked directly to the hubbub and stress of the holidays, she says. People in mourning for a loved one can feel especially sad as special days come and go without that person, she says.
Pies adds: "I certainly would expect that, in the present financial crisis, the usual blues would be intensified for many families facing loss of savings, unemployment, etc."
But, experts say, suicide is almost always the act of someone who has endured deep depression or another mental illness for months or years – not someone with a passing case of the blues.
The holiday suicide myth may detract attention from the real needs of people who might consider suicide at any time of year, Clayton says: "There are a lot of untreated people out there."
Meanwhile, researchers continue to look for the real patterns in suicidal behavior, says Alexander Crosby, a CDC researcher. "That can help us in terms of finding protective factors," he says.
And one protective factor, he says, is "connectiveness" – that is, how connected people are to friends, families and communities.
Fittingly enough, that was the very thing (along with an angel) that saved George Bailey after all.