Many people believe that suicide rates are at their highest during the winter months, specifically around Christmas, when many people struggle with loneliness, strains on their finances, and exacerbated family issues.
The truth in fact, is that the bulk of research consistently shows that the spring/summer months result in the highest number of suicides, a pattern that has remained consistent for many years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the highest number of suicides in the U.S in 2021 occurred in August. In fact, one study found that cardiac mortality is at its highest around Christmas and New Year’s than any other time of the year, making it far more of a risk factor than suicide at that time of year.
The Christmas suicide myth spreads the false idea that suicide rates increase during the holidays and while it is a positive to see cultural discussions of suicide and mental health, it’s important to recognize that suicide is a complex health issue, and can occur when a variety of biological, psychological and environmental factors come together, often triggered by stressful events.
A study from 2014 examining suicide rates in Queensland, Australia found that between 1990 and 2009 there were significantly more suicides reported on both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day than other days. This time of year is the height of summer in Australia.
Suicide is a leading cause of death in the U.S, with 45,979 recorded suicides in 2020, and the number of people who think about or attempt suicide is even higher. In 2020 alone, 12.2 million Americans seriously considered killing themselves, 3.2 million planned a suicide and 1.2 million attempted it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Death by suicide accounts for more fatalities worldwide than accidents, homicides, and war combined.
Despite these shocking statistics and the evident threat of suicide, false and damaging myths about suicide are still prevalent within society, and one of the main ones is that suicide rates go up at Christmas. The Annenberg Public Policy Center regularly conducts research looking at the frequency with which the media falsely link the holidays with a rise in suicides. Between 2010 and 2014, 70 percent of U.S. media outlets supported the myth, while only 30 percent debunked it. Despite this, December 2017 had the lowest rate of suicide in the U.S. of every month in the year.
Are Suicide Rates Actually Higher at Christmas?
The short—and heavily supported by research—answer is no. Suicide by nature can be hard to quantify, with so many going unrecorded. However, the vast majority of global research shows that the holidays often report the lowest suicide rates of the entire year.
“The Holiday Suicide Myth is indeed a myth,” said Leila Azarbad, Ph.D., professor of psychology at North Central College, “in fact, suicide rates drop during the winter months and rise in the spring. November and December tend to have the lowest suicide rates, whereas April, May and June tend to have the highest rates.”
Doreen Marshall, Ph.D., vice president of mission engagement at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention agreed said, “While it is common to experience complex feelings of loneliness, grief and depression during the holiday season, the idea that suicide rates rise in December and on Christmas is not true. We do not typically see more suicide deaths in December than in other months of the year.”
Why Do We Think Suicide Rates Go Up at Christmas?
While suicide rates might be at their lowest, Christmas can often be a time of heightened stress for many . A 2021 poll by the American Psychiatric Association found that out of 2,100 people surveyed, 41 percent reported increased stress during the holidays. Similarly, a study from the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 24 percent of people with a diagnosed mental illness reported that the holidays made their condition “a lot” worse and 40 percent reported it made it “somewhat” worse.”
Azarbad said that it’s possible the media perpetuates this myth in an effort to validate and normalize the “holiday blues” experienced by many and Dan Romer, Ph.D., research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania agreed. He said, “We think it has to do with the goal of providing advice to people about dealing with holiday stress, which then merges into the idea that this time of the year is actually a time of greater suicide risk. It also meshes with other theories like shorter days and seasonal affective disorder.”
While it can be considered a good thing that this myth is in fact a myth, experts suggest that this misinformation can do damage.
“It goes against the reporting recommendations which encourage giving people accurate information about suicide and not encouraging contagion, which is the phenomenon of thinking that suicide is a solution to life problems that others are taking,” said Romer. Cynthia Vejar, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and program director of Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Lebanon Valley College suggested that a positive symptom of this myth may be that “this awareness might alert people to the fact that others are struggling, and people might be inclined to check-in on others during this time of year”.
Why Are Suicide Rates Lower at Christmas?
Despite heightened levels of stress over the holidays and the effects of the weather and Seasonal Affective Disorder , suicide rates are almost unanimously reported to be lower at Christmas globally than any other time of the year.
Despite this, experts agree that a possible reason that suicide rates are lower around the holidays is the tradition of forgiveness and family. Marshall said, “many people may think about the holiday season and connect to traditions which ground us in our histories, our feelings toward one another, and our hope for a new year. The holidays can be a time for introspection that inspires people to check in on ourselves and connect with our loved ones. Holiday festivities and gatherings might also serve to bolster protective factors, such as feeling connected to family and community support, that encourage help-seeking for those struggling.”
This community sense of togetherness during hard times directly feeds in to Durkheim’s theory that periods of external threat create group integration within society and lower the suicide rate through the impact on social cohesion.
This can be seen historically as one study from 2003 found that after the tragic events of September 11, suicide rates in England and Wales immediately afterwards were significantly lower than other months in the same year, and any other September for the past 22 years as people came together to support each other through the tragedy.
The CDC reported that suicide rates in the U.S had been steadily rising every year between 2004 and 2019, but after the COVID-19 restrictions took over the world, despite risk factors caused by the isolation increasing, suicide rates actually dropped from March 2020 . Experts believe that, as at Christmas, the sense of communal feeling led people to reach out more to loved ones, whether for help or to help, leading people to have increased communication and support than during regular times.
This theory is also supported by the CDC data showing that in 2021, when restrictions largely eased in the U.S., the suicide rate went up as people began to resume their normal lives, and the collective support system waned. Despite this rise, the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that the average daily suicide rate during the holiday months remained among the lowest in the year.
Why Are Suicide Rates Higher in Spring?
Our experts all agree that suicide rates in the U.S. are higher in the spring and summer months than in the winter or around the holidays. The Annenberg Public Policy Center reported in 2017 that the average amount of suicides per day in December was 117.00, the lowest of the year compared to 137.71 in August, the highest.
In its latest report, the APPC reported that in 2021/2022, only 37 percent of stories that mentioned the link between the holidays and suicide debunked it, despite December 2021 seeing an average of 121.81 suicides per day, compared to 139.61 in August.
Vejar suggests that it may be that “there is an expectation that with the warmer weather, people will be happier and more inclined to be outdoors, participating in fun activities with family/friends. If people are struggling with mental health concerns, and/or if they have strained relationships with loved ones, a spotlight might be shined on the fact that they should be happy/doing fun things but they are not— in other words, their expectations and realities are incongruent with each other and this causes a sense of grief”.
Some experts have even made the link between increased risk factors such as allergies leading to a spike in suicides in the warmer months. Johns Hopkins HealthCare reports that “there is overwhelming evidence that inflammation from various sources including allergic reactions can cause or worsen depression”. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that there are approximately 52.9 million recorded people living with mental health issues in the U.S, while Johns Hopkins HealthCare reports that 50 million Americans suffer from allergies. They report that the chances of depression in people with rhinitis (both allergic and non-allergic) is 42 percent higher than those who don’t.
What Suicide Help Is Available?
Azarbad said that a key misconception about suicide is that talking about suicide or asking someone if they feel suicidal will encourage suicide attempts. “The research has shown that this is simply not true. In fact, asking someone if they are thinking about suicide is a crucial step toward offering support and obtaining proper treatment”.
“It’s important to know you’re not alone,” Marshall said, “If you are struggling with mental health and/or suicide, there are a number of suicide prevention resources , such as visiting your primary care provider or local walk-in clinic. Mental health professionals have education, tools, and resources to support someone that is struggling with their mental health and can help work through challenges they may be facing. In a crisis situation, text TALK to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line or call the National Suicide Prevention and Crisis Lifeline at 988.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, text “988” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or go to 988lifeline.org.