ST. LOUIS — It’s a holiday myth.
No one knows how it started, but over the years it’s become prevalent in American culture.
And it’s not true.
Suicide rates are not higher during the holidays than at other times of the year. Experts have the numbers to prove it.
The hot line at Provident Life Crisis Services rings about 40 times on Christmas Day, said Susan M. Self, vice president of telephonic services and director of life crisis services. Nearly every other day of the year, the counselors field about 100 calls per day.
On average, about 9 percent of the 35,000 people who call the hot line each year are thinking about suicide. The percentage is the same on Christmas, New Year’s and other holidays, she said.
In reality, suicide rates in the U.S. are lowest in December, peaking in spring and fall. Trends in Illinois and Missouri mirror those nationally, with December tallying some of the lowest counts of suicide deaths each year.
In Missouri, two people take their own lives each day on average.
A day-by-day analysis shows that Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and other holidays produce no more suicides than any other day of the year. But somehow a myth that suicides increase at year’s end has embedded itself in the popular psyche.
“I probably believed it when I got here, that if I worked Christmas Day I’d get to do some good work,” Self said.
It’s unclear where the myth started, said Dan Romer, director of the Adolescent Risk Communication Institute at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” has a suicide attempt at Christmas at its heart. Other movies, such as “Gremlins” and “When Harry Met Sally,” contain references to the myth as well.
Newspapers have been guilty of perpetuating the myth. The Annenberg Center found that in the winter of 1999 to 2000, 77 percent of newspaper articles linking suicide with the holidays supported the myth. Since then, the media have steadily caught on. In 2005 and 2006, just over half of newspaper stories supported the myth, while the rest debunked it. Last year, only 9 percent of stories perpetuated the myth, while 91 percent debunked it.
The myth may have taken root because people tend to remember tragedies that happen at holiday times, Self said. The contrast between the joy of the season and the pain of suicide is striking and may stick in people’s memories more than at other times of year, she said.
And people have become more attuned to the stress, pain, loneliness and depression that some people feel around holiday time.
“For those of us who are feeling OK and doing well, when we look at someone who’s not doing well we make certain assumptions that the holidays must be particularly hard for them,” Self said. “It’s a contagious kind of empathy which is nice, but not true.”
The reason suicides decline in December is nearly as mysterious as where the myth began.
’Tis the season, Romer said. Suicides decline in the winter. In the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are inverted from the northern schedule, the dip in suicides comes in July.
“This seems counterintuitive because shorter, darker days would seem to be associated with thoughts of death,” Romer said.
It may be that people are too lethargic in winter to take their own lives, he said.
Suicides spike in the spring.
“People have held on through the cold and the dark in the hopes that when the spring comes they’ll feel better. But if the spring comes and they don’t feel better, it’s almost too much to bear,” said Anara Guard of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
Marian McCord’s son, Chad, took his life in the spring after suffering with depression.
“A person with depression doesn’t necessarily want to look into the future. They are wearing dark shades, and it magnifies their hopelessness ... when others around them see the light and they can’t see it,” she said.
McCord, of Oakville, is the executive director of CHADS coalition, an organization that raises awareness about and supports research on suicide.
The seasonal effect has become blunted in recent decades, research shows.
Some people attribute the December decline in suicides to the Christmas spirit.
“No matter how bad things are, people get hopeful around the holidays,” Self said.
A study published this month in Psychiatry Research showed that suicides and suicide attempts in Switzerland plunge on Christmas Eve for women and Christmas Day for men. Men experience an upswing in suicide after the New Year.
The researchers speculated that higher levels of social support associated with the holidays could account for some of the reduction in suicide. So can having a time landmark to look forward to.
“Temporal landmarks help us to see things in focus; they promote the temporary postponement of hopelessness,” the researchers said.
Even though suicides don’t peak around the holidays, people are still suffering with mental illness, addictions and life crises that cause them nearly unbearable pain, Self said.
“I’m still sending the police (to intervene) twice on Christmas Day. It’s not like people aren’t depressed or sad or lonely,” she said.