Holiday-Suicide Link: The Myth Persists

Despite the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s nine-year effort to debunk the connection,
newspapers continue to perpetuate the myth that suicides rise during the end-of-year holiday
period. According to an analysis of news reporting during last year’s (2008-09) holiday period,
the proportion of stories that supported the myth remained at approximately the same level as
during the previous holiday period (see Table 1 below).
The analysis released today by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) shows that nearly 40
percent of the articles written during last year’s holiday season that directly linked suicide and
the holiday season perpetuated the myth. That represents a small and statistically non-significant
decrease from the previous holiday period when about 50 percent supported the myth (see Figure
1 below).
 
The rate of suicide in the U.S. is in fact lowest in December, and peaks in the spring and fall.
Data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics (see Figure 2 below) show that this
pattern has not changed in recent years through 2006, the most recent year for which national
data are available.
 
As part of its efforts to improve the coverage of suicide in the press, APPC has been tracking
holiday suicide reporting since 2000 when it released its first press alert on newspaper coverage
of the myth.
 
“Although there has been a slow decrease in press support of the myth, the story continues,” said
Dan Romer, the director of APPC’s Adolescent Communication Institute, which conducted the
study. “This is unfortunate because the public should know that this is not a season of increased
risk for suicide.”
 
The percentage of stories debunking the holiday-suicide myth has steadily increased since APPC
began releasing its annual analysis. In the 1999-2000 holiday period, only about 23 percent of
the stories that made a link between the holidays and suicide debunked the myth. It is
encouraging that last year the percentage of stories that discredited the link reached 62 percent. A
story that appeared online last holiday season in the British Medical Journal may have helped to
get the word out: http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/337/dec17_2/a2769.
 
“We are heartened to see more voices refuting the holiday-suicide myth,” said Kathleen Hall
Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. “It is essential that the public be given
accurate information on this important subject.”
 
Perpetuating the myth not only misinforms readers but it also misses an opportunity to educate
the public about the most likely sources of suicide risk, including major depression and
substance abuse. While persons suffering from these and other treatable mental conditions are at
increased risk of suicide, getting help from an appropriate health professional can reduce this
risk. The press can play a role in encouraging those suffering from these mental health conditions
to seek help.
 
Persons with serious mental health conditions are also at increased risk of being influenced by
press reports of suicide, including potentially imitating what they read or see in the media. The
press can help to reduce the chances of such “contagion” effects by accurately reporting on the
prevalence of suicide.
 
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide ranks as the eleventh
leading cause of death among adults. Among adolescents, it is the third leading cause. More
information about suicide and reporting guidelines for the media are available at the following:
 
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
 
National Center for Injury Prevention and Control
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Download a USA Today article featuring Adolescent Communication Institute Data on the holiday-suicide myth