Gut Check is a periodic look at health claims made by studies, newsmakers, or conventional wisdom. We ask: Should you believe this?
The Claim: Suicides rise after Christmas, through a postponement effect.
The Backstory: Okay, that’s not the claim most people have heard. The popular myth is that suicides peak around Christmas, as people already suffering from depression are pushed over the edge by the surrounding jollity that they can’t share in, by heightened feelings of loneliness (because “everyone but they” has family and friends to spend the holiday with), and by seasonal affective disorder due to the long nights and short days of mid-to-late December.
The Christmas suicide peak is, indeed, a myth, and a “long perpetuated” one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, according to CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, US suicides (at more than 40,000 per year, the 10th–leading cause of death) are at a nadir in December, and peak in the spring and fall. Health experts are so annoyed at the persistence of the Christmas suicide myth that the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania counts how often journalists assert it — less often in 2015 than in any of the last four years, when about three-quarters of stories mentioning the claim accepted it.
Nevertheless, some research has found evidence to bolster the Christmas-suicide idea. A 2014 study in Queensland, Australia, looking at the years 1990 to 2009, found a statistically significant increase in suicides on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. Of course, if you look in enough places for a phenomenon — and researchers have looked at suicide rates by month or season in scores of countries — by chance alone you’ll find it in one.
First Take: In their zeal to debunk the Christmas-suicide myth, public health authorities risk throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water. They emphasize the spring peak (that would be northern spring, since most of this research on it is done in Europe and the United States). It’s an observation that goes back to 1897, when sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote about it. A vast 1999 European study of 13,553 suicide attempts from 1990 to 1992 found a spring peak and a December nadir, though only in females, and a 2007 study of all 2,610 suicides from 1970 to 1993 in one region of Denmark also showed the spring suicide peak.
Psychologists, rarely at a loss to explain any behavioral phenomenon after the fact, say the spring peak is caused by the accentuated sense of despair experienced by people who already feel hopeless and depressed when they can’t share in the sense of hope, rebirth, and new opportunities that April and May bring. The warmth and renewal of spring, some claim, “can jump-start an energized despair.”
But there is good evidence for a post-Christmas rebound in suicides. As far back as 1986, research suggested that suicides can tick upward after being held down by something in the calendar. In a study that year, for instance, researchers reported suicide dips around the last game of the World Series, Super Bowl Sunday, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving. While “suicides are comparatively low just before” and on those days, the researchers concluded, they are “comparatively high just after them.”
Second Take: That hint of a rebound effect has found other empirical support. A 2012 report from public health officials in Oregon found a January rise in suicides after a December lull, to a rate higher than February (but lower than May, June, and July). That suggested that some December suicides had been “postponed” until January. A 1999 study from Denmark, examining data on 32,291 suicides from 1970 to 1994, reported “a postponement of a significant number of suicides from before a holiday until after,” including Christmas, a phenomenon they called a “postponing or transpositioning effect.”
Even the CDC’s own data, shared with the Annenberg Center but not publicly available, show a January rebound: from 1999 to 2013, the daily suicide average dipped from 90.2 in November to 85.5 in December and then rebounded to 91.9 in January (though data are missing for 2011). The pattern was particularly stark in some years; the daily average, for example, fell from 105 in November 2012 to 102 in December, then rose to 114 in January 2013. You can see a line graph of all the years in Figure 2 here.
The Takeaway: Sadly, January does bring a rebound in suicide rates after a Christmastime dip.