Suicide rate doesn’t rise around holidays, but myth persists

    (Graphic courtesy Annenberg Public Policy Center)

    (Graphic courtesy Annenberg Public Policy Center)

    Have you ever heard that more people commit suicide during the holidays? As it turns out, that’s a myth, but one that has been reported so many times, it’s taken as fact.

    An analysis from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that about half of news stories on the subject repeated the myth last year.

    Rates of suicide are typically at their lowest around Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s. But there’s a common misconception that they skyrocket.

    “We find it surprising that this myth continues to be reported in news reports,” said Dan Romer, the research director at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at Penn.

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    Searching a database of news stories that discussed suicide and the holidays, he and his team found that during last year’s holiday season, 47 percent percent of stories on the subject perpetuated the spurious connection between the two, while the other 53 percent debunked the myth. Stories that neither upheld nor debunked the myth were excluded from the analysis.

    “It seems to happen in both large, urban newspapers and small, rural newspapers. That people will repeat this idea that suicide is much more common, relative to the rest of the year,” he said, adding that many of the stories rely on anecdotal evidence. Romer encourages reporters to check out perceived trends with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Reporters who repeat this myth probably have good intentions, Romer said, like trying to raise awareness about mental health. But beyond reporting something that’s factually inaccurate, there could be a public health risk involved as well.

    “What we do know is there is a phenomenon called contagion,” he said, “in which people who are vulnerable to suicide, who are contemplating it, if they have information indicating that other people are committing suicide around the same time, that can trigger a suicidal event.”

    But there’s no way to know if that phenomenon is at work during the holiday months, especially because the rates are low in comparison to other months.

    One trend that has been documented is that people can be more vulnerable to feeling blue during the holiday season, he said.

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