Americans generally believe that people are more suicidal during the annual holiday season.
Researchers, however, say bah humbug: Contrary to widespread belief, December is the month with the fewest suicides.
And, according to a new study, news outlets play a significant role in the public’s misperception.
As recently as 2022 to 2023, of the news stories that connected the holidays with suicide, 40% incorrectly supported the myth that suicides increase during the holidays, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which has tracked how media organizations erroneously link the year-end holiday season to suicide.
In turn, about 80% of adults incorrectly picked December as the “time of year in which the largest number of suicides occur,” according to Annenberg — even though several other months have significantly higher suicide rates.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average number of U.S. suicides per day in November and December of 2022 made those the lowest months of that year — 11th and 12th, respectively — while January was ranked eighth.
The month with the highest rate of suicide in 2022, according to the CDC, was June, followed by May, then July and August. Overall, July has historically had the highest rate of suicide — proving that cold, gloomy weather doesn’t necessarily translate to a higher risk of depression or suicide.
Since 1999, Annenberg has tracked how media organizations link the year-end holiday season to suicide, with nearly half of U.S. news outlets continuing to wrongly report a higher rate of suicide during the holiday season.
“Whether it’s the media that is influencing popular opinion, or mistaken beliefs by the public that appear in news stories, it’s unfortunate to see there are still persistent misimpressions about the holidays and suicide,” said Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, in a news release.
He did, however, say that researchers were “encouraged to see more news stories that debunked the myth than supported it,” referring to the 60% of news outlets that the organization said got it right.
Fortunately, a smaller percentage of news stories upheld the myth in 2022 and 2023 than in the prior three holiday seasons, suggesting that a growing number of media outlets are fact-checking their information.
As if to underscore that fact, Southern Hemisphere data from Australia and Brazil — where the seasons are reversed — reveal that late spring and summer months of November through March have higher rates of suicide deaths, with the highest rates during their mid-summer, in January and February.
“The increases and decreases in the suicide rate are largely seasonal,” Romer said. “The reason it’s low around the U.S. holidays is because it is winter here, and the suicide rate tends to be lower in the winter. If you go to Australia, where it is summer in December, you will see a higher rate — and that is true for summer here in the United States, too.
“This helps to explain the lower suicide rate we see here in December — it’s mostly a seasonal thing,” Romer added. “Psychologically, because of the shorter and gloomier days of winter in the U.S., we tend to associate them with suicide. But that’s not what happens in reality.”
Mental health experts are concerned that falsehoods regarding suicide could do more harm than good.
“It’s unfortunate that the myth that suicide rates increase around the winter holidays continues since studies have shown that’s just not the case,” Dr. Alecia Vogel-Hammen, assistant fellowship director for research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told US News and World Report.
“But let’s not sensationalize the risk of suicide, or give people the impression that this is a time when more people are dying by suicide,” Vogel-Hammen said. “When the media emphasizes a false risk, it can be harmful to those who are struggling, as it makes it seem like a more common event.”
If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can dial the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention hotline at 988 or go to SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.
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