Why we should work to debunk the myth about suicide and the holidays
I distinctly remember the first time I learned the truth about a common myth related to suicide. It was nearly 14 years ago, and I was sitting with my fellow would-be hotline volunteers in our training class, ready to tackle the lesson we were all most nervous about: Suicide. We filled out a pre-test, designed to gauge our base knowledge about the topic, and see what sorts of preconceptions we were bringing with us to our volunteer experience. The true or false quiz seemed simple enough to me at the time, a college junior who had been through her share of advanced psychology classes and was about a year from graduation, in spite of those classes having provided very little mention of suicide. I arrived at one that gave me pause. “True or False: The suicide rate increases around the holidays.”
I was a little stumped. “Gosh…I feel like I hear a lot about suicide during the holiday season,” I thought to myself. “And I know I’ve heard that statistic…somewhere. And hey, what time of year is more stressful for people than that whole period between Thanksgiving and the New Year? It makes sense. True.” My pencil checked the box.
Well (spoiler alert!) I was wrong. We all listened intently to the correct answers and found that much of what we thought was true about suicide was, in fact, false. And I remember feeling almost angry about this, like why was this whole topic so taboo, so secretive, that complete fallacies could be out there in the universe parading around as truths all these years. But that particular myth about the holidays was really stuck in my craw.
So stuck, in fact, that it’s become a running joke between me and my husband because he’s been witness to my missionary-like commitment to setting the record straight. I yell at the TV when I see a show reinforcing the myth. We’d be at a party and someone would find out where I worked and inevitably I’d get lots of questions about suicide, mental health, and other topics. Without a doubt someone would ask if it’s true, or make a comment about how more suicides happen around the holidays. My eyes would widen (another potential convert to help spread my gospel of truth!) as I got to explain (my husband might prefer the term “lecture”) that this was false, and that December can actually be a month where there are fewer suicides, but that springtime does seem to be a time where we lose more people to suicide than other times of year.
In addition to the fact that falsehoods in general just bug me, something about this one would set me over the edge, and I think it’s because I feel it’s actually a bit dangerous to have myths such as this one circulating.
Look, I’m glad that there are articles about suicide this time of year, any time of year for that matter, but too many of them use the myth as a means to drive traffic to their site or increase readership without clearly and categorically setting the record straight that there’s really no relationship between suicide and the holiday season. They also tend to leave out important information about prevention, according to a report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
What ends up happening is that people continue to feel there is a relationship (look at all these articles that come out about suicide in December, it must be true!) and I think, from that, two things happen.
First, attention to the topic of suicide is heightened at a time of year when incidents are typically at their lowest. Again, awareness is a good thing anytime, but where are all these articles during the rest of the year, particularly in springtime through summer when the incidents of suicide actually do increase? We end up with an abundance of articles and material when the myth creates a demand for content yet incidents are at their lowest, and a lack of attention when they’re at their highest in the spring and the public’s heightened awareness and knowledge of prevention methods could especially be put to good use.
Second, I think the perpetration of this myth promotes a sort of romanticism of, or glamorizes the idea of a holiday suicide. While you cannot put the thought of suicide in someone’s head by simply talking about it (another myth we frequently try to squash), irresponsible reporting of suicide in the media can contribute to the contagion phenomenon, which is very real. This idea that the holidays are a “good” time or a normal time to complete one’s suicide plan, or that a person “should” feel extra depressed, lonely, and susceptible to their thoughts of suicide this time of year can put someone already contemplating suicide in an especially vulnerable place.
It’s true that the holidays can be a stressful time of year. For someone who is already lonely, depressed, or otherwise suffering it can be a tough time. But there’s no evidence to suggest that this results in more people ending their own life around the holidays. I hope everyone will join me in what’s become a personal crusade to stop this myth in its tracks, and replace it with more productive information and education towards suicide prevention all year round.
Tags: Crisis, crisis lines, depression, Helplines, mental illness, suicide awareness, suicide education and research, suicide prevention, suicide prevention helplines