We often hear that suicide rates are highest during the holidays. I even heard a character in a Christmas TV movie warn about the risk during the last holiday season. Seems to make sense, in a way. After all, the holiday season even has its own syndrome - the holiday blues. Many people are stressed out, and for anyone who's alone and depressed, the contrast between the ideal of the holidays and reality can be hard to take.
Here's the problem - the prevailing wisdom is wrong. In fact, we're not heading away from the most dangerous time of the year for suicide, we're heading towards it. Suicide rates are actually at their highest during late spring and early summer, and at their lowest around the holidays. There does appear to be a jump on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, which is thought to be due to the holiday season ending and harsh reality settling in.
So why, despite all the stress (even Jimmy Stewart tried to throw himself off of a bridge), does the holiday season seem to damp down suicide attempts? First, the increased socializing and contact with that many people do during the holidays may actually keep those suicidal thoughts at bay. The support of family and friends is one thing that keeps people from utter despair. Second, there are plenty of distractions. You're busy, busy, busy. This may be a source of stress, but it also can keep your mind from focusing on your depression. Also, even if someone's depressed, the beauty and joy of the holiday season can provide a temporary lift.
But why the heck does one of the most wonderful times of the year spur people to take their lives? Part of the reason is definitely that the contrast between a depressed person's inner world and the outer world is just too painful. In winter, the whole world, including nature, seems to match your dark mood.
Also, you begin to realize that if you don't feel good during this season, when the world is renewing itself, you're never going to. One of my lowest points, right at the time that I decided to try antidepressants, was in May. I remember sitting on the floor of my room on a lovely warm day. Spring had always been my favorite season, and I had the summer to look forward to, with weekends lying on the beach, one of my favorite things. But I felt like I could barely get through the next day. I had assumed that the winter had something to do with my depression, but when spring didn't cause my mood to lift, I knew it was time to get help.
In addition, there's a paradoxical response to the increase in sunshine that is thought to contribute to suicides in the spring. The sunshine can actually give people who have been feeling fatigued by the lack of sunlight during the winter enough energy to plan and carry out a suicide, yet not enough to give them an emotional lift. This is similar to the risk that can occur when someone starts on an antidepressant. In the beginning, the antidepressant may work enough to lift the fog that's been preventing them from accomplishing anything (like suicide) but not good enough (yet) to have hope.
For information on suicide prevention, please see the links below. I'll be writing a SharePost shortly about what to do if you think someone you know is depressed.
Suicide: Holiday's Darkest Myth
Study finds suicide rates fall during holidays
Know Suicide's Warning Signs