A common type of Internet story this time of year, other than the ones about how to bake holiday cookies and how to avoid gaining weight from said holiday cookies, is the one about how to handle holiday stress. You know, the existential crises brought on by solitude, or forced closeness, or whatever personal demons snow+presents+relatives+red cups summon. A common kicker for these studies of seasonal bleakness? “No wonder suicides spike around the holidays.”
It can be good to remind readers that, though most people feel merry during December, it’s also normal to get depressed during the holidays. What’s terrible and dangerous, though, is telling people—falsely—that suicides spike around this time.
According to the CDC, November and December are the months with the fewest suicides. The overwhelming majority of people who kill themselves are mentally ill. For people who otherwise feel fine year-round, feeling mildly down in December is simply not enough to prompt suicide. The stress we associate with the holiday season isn’t the kind of stress that leads to suicide, as Christine Moutier, a psychiatrist and the chief medical officer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told NPR. Instead, people are driven to end their lives because of factors like genetics, trauma, mental illness, and access to guns.
It’s not clear how this myth got started, but one possibility is the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, which basic-cable networks put on heavy rotation as Christmas nears. The film’s main character, George Bailey, contemplates killing himself around the holidays, but he ultimately opts not to. Somehow, that key takeaway gets overlooked.
Suicides actually tend to rise in the spring and summer. Even in dark, frozen Finland, more people kill themselves in May than in February. In South Africa, suicides peak in the southern hemisphere’s spring—September and October. One reason is that warm weather is activating, so people who are suicidal might not find the energy to attempt suicide until spring. Depressed people who don’t find their life trajectories aligning with a season that’s supposed to be all about happiness and renewal can spiral into an “energized despair,” as Deborah Serani writes in Scientific American.
There might also be biological explanations for the phenomenon. Among the more fascinating: 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.
The science on that connection is still developing, but discussing a fake, wintertime suicide “epidemic” does nothing but confuse the issue. An analysis by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that, as recently as 2013, 70 percent of news articles on suicide perpetuated the holiday myth. Fortunately, that trend seems to be reversing: Last year just 22 of the 47 stories written on this topic perpetuated the myth, according to a report released by the Annenberg Center on Wednesday.
Still, that means nearly two dozen stories are floating around that, at best, mislead the public about the true nature of suicide, and at worst, prompt people to imitate a suicide trend that doesn’t exist. According to the Annenberg Center, one Utah paper (wrongly) noted last November:
Yet, this time of year can be devastating for a lot of people. It increases the depth of loneliness for those who have few family or friends. Suicide rates actually rise as the Christmas season approaches and memories of lost loved ones are more vivid and we miss them more than ever.
“The point is not to make it sound like everyone's considering it,” said Dan Romer, the Annenberg Center’s research director. Some “people might be isolated or lonely, but that's no reason to tell them that other people in their situation are killing themselves.”
So don’t do that, Internet writers! The holidays are stressful enough already.