A New Year's Spike in Poisonings

January 1 is unique among major holidays as a suicide flashpoint.

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Every 40 seconds, someone in the world commits suicide. In the U.S., we attempt to kill ourselves more on Mondays, and more in the spring than any other season. But major holidays can be protective. We attempt suicide less on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Fourth of July. One holiday stands opposite to that trend, though. On New Year's Day, compared to non-holidays, we see "significantly higher numbers of suicide attempts by overdose."

That's what emergency medicine physician Gillian Beauchamp and her colleagues at the University of Cincinnati found when they reviewed over one million "ingestion with suicide intent" reports to Poison Control. Those included prescription, non-prescription (lots of Tylenol cases), and street drug ingestions (but didn't include violent self-injury).

Suicide is perennially among the top 10 causes of death in the U.S., and worldwide around one million people kill themselves every year. Beauchamp told me that number is rising, so she's working to identify risk factors like these, times at which people are most likely make to attempts, to stem the rise. This sort of information can both inform prevention and make sure facilities are staffed and ready to handle surges of poisoning or suicidal ideation admissions at high risk times.

The uniqueness of New Years Day in terms of suicide, by any manner of carrying it out, isn't new. In 1987, psychologist David Lester compiled data on suicide rates around major holidays, and similarly found that many fewer people kill themselves on major holidays as compared to other same days-of-the-week in the same seasons -- except for January 1.

Beauchamp told me one possible explanation is that New Year's Day, like Mondays, and spring -- which likewise carry senses of new beginnings, and you'd think might convey positive feelings of opportunity -- may motivate some suicidally depressed people to act on the intentions they'd been considering for a while. New Year's Day also means the end of the holiday season for many, when they go back to relatively lonely times after temporary reprieve of social support.

So the University of Cincinnati physicians hope this can inform and improve suicide prevention measures and depression treatment. In the immediate term, though, an excuse for us all to make sure everyone in our lives knows they're loved and appreciated.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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