Dec. 26, 2000 -- Contrary to previous media reports, suicide rates do not increase during the holiday season. In fact, November and December rank lowest in terms of daily suicide rates.
A new study shows that the media actually perpetuates this myth. In fact, two out of three stories incorrectly link suicides to the holidays, according to an analysis by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in New York.
To arrive at their findings, researchers examined print stories on suicide that ran from Nov. 8, 1999 through Jan. 15, 2000 and found that only 13% of stories attempted to set straight the myth that suicides rate increase during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
It turns out that April tends to have the highest suicide rates, according to Herbert Hendin, MD, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Exactly why suicide rates rise in April is unclear, but as American poet and playwright T.S. Eliot put it, April is the cruelest month.
Perhaps, Hendin says, unreasonable expectations of springtime peak in April and people commit suicide when they realize they are not living up to their expectations.
In the U.S., suicide is the eighth leading cause of death and the third leading cause of death among teenagers. In 1998, over 30,000 Americans took their own lives.
"No question about it," Hendin tells WebMD, "the idea that suicide peaks during the holidays is a myth [and] we have been telling the media that for years."
Still, each year Hendin gets calls about it. "The media have a fondness for this story. I think it probably arose from the fact that people without families or who have lost somebody are often sad around Christmas because of the absence of the person or persons," he says.
"Suicide is a product of mental illness and 95% of people who commit suicide are mentally ill -- most commonly with depression," Hendin tells WebMD. "The type of depressed person that is at risk is often agitated, anxious and a substance abuser."
However, depression is one of the most treatable mental illnesses.
Glen Gabbard, MD, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst at Menninger in Topeka, Kan., agrees. The most important message, holidays or no holidays, is that suicidality is treatable, he tells WebMD. Most suicidal people have a treatable psychiatric disorder and treatment may mean antidepressants, abstinence from alcohol or other drugs and/or psychotherapy.
"Studies of suicide have shown that isolation is one of the risk factors and the majority of us are not isolated during the holidays," Gabbard says. But he adds that feelings of hopelessness, another important predictor of suicide risk, should be taken very seriously.
Be concerned when a person is saying he or she has no future and is giving away possessions. "The purchasing of a gun is another ominous warning sign and if there is any risk at all of suicide, every fire arm should be removed from the house," he tells WebMD.
"At any case if someone expresses a wish to commit suicide, this person should not be left alone," says Gabbard. "I would advise them to talk to friends or distant family members via e-mail or phone." During the holidays, they can volunteer to feed the homeless on Christmas day and/or can get talk to a clergyman about their feelings. And finally, he adds, there are suicide hotlines available for referrals to psychotherapists and psychiatrists.