Hol­i­day sui­cide amyth

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY KAREN GOLD­BERG GOFF

Per­haps Ge­orge Bai­ley blame.

The lead char­ac­ter in Frank Capra’s “It’s Won­der­ful Life” stares at that bridge on Christ­mas Eve, think­ing about com­mit­ting sui­cide and per­haps spark­ing the con­ven­tional wis­dom that the sui­cide rate rises around Christ­mas­time.

That’s been the think­ing in the 60-plus years since that movie was re­leased, giv­ing rise to a myth that is al­most as sto­ried as Santa Claus, one re­searcher says.

“It is to­tally a myth,” says Dan Romer, re­search di­rec­tor of the Ado­les­cent Com­mu­ni­ca­tion In­sti­tute of the An­nen­berg Pub­lic Pol­icy Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. “De­cem­ber is ac­tu­ally a low point for sui­cides.”

Mr. Romer has been tracking me­dia re­ports of the De­cem­ber sui­cide myth in Amer­ica for more than 10 years. He started at the turn of the mil­len­nium, when there was an uptick in the num­ber of peo­ple who thought the world would end when the cal­en­dar hit 2000.

At that time, he found just 23 per­cent of news re­ports de­bunked the sui­cide myth. By 2006, 91 per­cent of sto­ries were men­tion­ing that the be­lieved in­crease was not true. By last hol­i­day sea­son, how­ever, Mr. Romer found that the num­ber of re­ports de­bunk­ing the myth was down to 62 per­cent, mean­ing more than one-third of sto­ries were still re­port­ing that sui­cides in­crease over the hol­i­days.

The peak time for sui­cides is May, says Paula Clay­ton, a psy­chi­a­trist and med­i­cal di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Foun­da­tion for Sui­cide Preven­tion. The U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion re­ports that 33,000 Amer­i­cans com­mit sui­cide each year.

“De­pres­sion may be higher in the win­ter,” Dr. Clay­ton says, “but win­ter de­pres­sion goes away when spring comes.”

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Dr. Clay­ton points out that more than 90 per­cent of the peo­ple who at­tempt sui­cide are se­verely de­pressed, a much more se­ri­ous di­ag­no­sis than for some­one who is suf­fer­ing from the “hol­i­day blues.”

For peo­ple with se­ri­ous men­tal ill­ness, the mood does not lighten in May.

The myth of the spike in sui­cide rates in De­cem­ber might be in­ten­si­fied by the emo­tion­ally try­ing times that can come with the hol­i­days, Dr. Clay­ton says. There is the stress of be­ing around ex­tended fam­ily, of try­ing to cre­ate a “pic­ture-per­fect” hol­i­day, of mourn­ing loved ones who have died and frus­tra­tion over how to pay the ex­tra bills that come with the hol­i­days.

Re­searchers at In­di­ana Uni­ver­sity last year looked at hol­i­day-re­lated med­i­cal myths. Drs. Rachel C. Vree­man and Aaron E. Car­roll com­piled data from sev­eral stud­ies that de­bunked the sui­cide myth. They pub­lished their find­ings on the myth and other hol­i­day yarns, in­clud­ing that poin­set­tias are poi­sonous and that su­gar makes chil­dren hy­per­ac­tive, in the Bri­tish Med­i­cal Jour­nal.

Not only do sui­cides drop at the hol­i­days, but some stud­ies sug­gest that sui­cide at­tempts and sui­ci­dal ten­den­cies also seem to de­cline in win­ter.

The jour­nal So­cial Sci­ence and Medicine pub­lished an anal­y­sis of more than 19,000 emer­gency-room ad­mis­sions in Eng­land from 1976 to 2003. Lead re­searcher He­len A. Berger of Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity con­cluded that self-in­duced in­juries, drug over­doses, self-poi­son­ings and other sui­ci­dal be­hav­iors all dropped be­low typ­i­cal weekly rates from Dec. 19 through Jan. 1 each year.

At least one sui­cide preven­tion group also has taken to task the way the me­dia re­ports sui­cides. The non­profit Sui­cide Preven­tion Re­source Cen­ter urges those in the me­dia to not glam­or­ize sui­cide at­tempts among celebri­ties or give de­tails of sui­cides, such as what method a per­son uses in a sui­cide at­tempt. The group also urges the me­dia to stop over­sim­pli­fy­ing the rea­sons for sui­cides, such as “He was de­pressed be­cause it was Christ­mas” or “be­cause his girl­friend broke up with him.”


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