Suicide and the myth of the holidays

Contrary to what you may have heard, this is not the time of year when people are more likely to take their own lives.

The notion that it is — allegedly due to the holidays and the darkness of winter — is a myth, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania reports today. But that fact hasn’t stopped it from being repeated.

For 17 years, the Center has been tracking the coverage of suicide and only in two of those years have more than 60 percent of news stories debunked the myth, it said in a news release today.

“News stories mentioning suicide around the holidays may seek to be helpful, but they can misinform people and fail to provide advice on how to cope with stress during the holidays,” said Dan Romer, the center’s director. “Even a casual reference or an unverified assertion in a quotation can end up supporting the myth and potentially discourage those vulnerable to suicide from seeking the care they need.”

The suicide rate between November and January, in fact, is usually the lowest of the year. The shaded portion of the graph here is the holiday season.

Last year, The Atlantic offered an explanation why warmer, sunnier months are more likely to find higher suicide rates: tree pollen.

There’s evidence that excess pollen in the air triggers the release of inflammatory proteins called cytokines into the upper airways, exacerbating mood disturbances in people who are prone to them. When scientists dumped tree pollen into the nasal cavities of rodents, the critters had more cytokine gene expression in their brains, and they become more anxious and socially withdrawn. An analysis in Denmark found that suicides increased by 13.2 percent when the pollen count was higher.

Even people who should know better repeat the myth.

“Depression can get high, suicide rates this time of year are a lot higher,” the director of a recovery center told a Cleveland TV station last week. “When you see everyone else celebrating, and happy and you know on the inside that you’re just dying.”

Ironically, it may well be, some experts suggest, that the suicide rate is lower at this time of the year because people are more attuned to warning signs, partly because of the myth.