The myth connecting suicide to the holidays persists
Nearly three-quarters of the newspaper stories mentioning suicide and the holidays over the 2012-2013 holiday period perpetuated the myth that more people commit suicide during that season, according to an analysis by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) at the University of Pennsylvania.
During the 2012-2013 holiday season, researchers found that of the stories mentioning suicide and the holidays, 44 stories repeated the myth while 18 stories debunked it. Another 116 stories discussing suicide in that period drew no connection.
Of those stories making a connection, 71 percent supported the myth, a slight decline from the prior year but greater than the average of 53 percent over the last 14 seasons.
The notion that more people commit suicide at the end of the year than at other times is a misperception. Since 2000, APPC has been tracking press reports about this widespread belief. In 1999-2000, the first season that APPC studied the issue, more than 60 stories were identified saying that suicides spike over the holidays. These stories accounted for 77 percent of the stories that talked about a potential connection between suicide and the holidays.
Not only do suicides not spike during the holiday period, but the months of November, December and January typically have the lowest daily numbers of suicide during the year, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
“Despite what many people believe, the holiday-suicide link is truly a myth,” said Dan Romer, associate director of APPC, who has directed the study since its inception. “Why are we concerned about stories that focus on the myth? The holidays are a time when the media talk about the stresses of the period. And contagion from press reporting is a validated phenomenon that can influence those who are already susceptible to suicide.”
Although the suicide rate is lower around the holidays, nearly 100 people a day commit suicide during these months. In recent years, following the financial collapse of 2008, the suicide rate has increased, especially for people between the ages of 35 and 64 years old. (See http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6217a1.htm.) This has increased the need for public health agencies and groups to encourage more accurate reporting about suicide by the news media (see www.reportingonsuicide.org).