Every year when Christmas rolls around we see articles in the various media about how people cope with the holiday season. A common theme is how some folks dread getting together with family and how others feel even more isolated than usual. Among all of this there persists a harmful holiday season suicide myth. More than half of what is reported or published says that the incidence of suicide goes up over the year end holiday season. The fact of the matter is that this is not true.
Seasonal Suicide Rates
Because in northern climates we see seasonal affective disorder when the days are shorter there is tendency to think that higher suicide rates go along with short winter days. However, the times in the year when suicide is higher are late spring and early summer. According to the Centers for Disease Control winter months are when suicide rates are the lowest. For those living in the southern hemisphere the same season variation applies which, in countries like Brazil and Australia, does lead to a suicide peak in their early summer. This is, in fact, the early holiday season “down under.” But it has nothing to do with the holidays and everything to do with it being late spring and early summer.
Good Intentions But Misinformation
One issue with the media reporting incorrect information about suicides is that they want to help folks with the “holiday blues” and folks who are isolated and feel left out of all of the holiday cheer. Another issue is that in order to write an article or report a story that gets attention there is a tendency to try to stand out from the rest or shock people so that they pay attention. Suggesting that at a time when people are happy and celebrating there are others in such great despair that they end their lives does just this. Sadly, it is a lie whether intentional or not.
Is There A Suicide Follow the Leader Effect?
We assume that someone writing a story about higher suicide rates at Christmas wants to help people and not hurt them. Then it follows that these folks think that by bringing the issue to people’s attention that folks will seek out those at risk and help them. Sadly, there is a follow the leader or imitation effect in regard to suicide that we have known about for a couple of centuries. It is called the Werther Effect.
Die Leiden des Jungen Werther was a novel written in German in the early 19th century. The protagonist is a young man who is disappointed in love. He dresses up in his best clothes and uses a dueling pistol to shoot himself in the head. The story was so compelling that for a generation after the book was published in various languages in Europe there were repeated suicides by heart broken young men. The book was eventually banned in virtually every country in Europe in an attempt to stop the high number of suicides.
The so-called Werther Effect has been studied in modern times. When there is reporting of suicides it appears to subsequently increase the suicide rate. However, other factors like the economy, pre-existing suicidal thinking, and mental illness all come into play as well. Nevertheless, there appears to be a power of suggestion that goes with suggesting that suicide is a way that others are using to deal with their despair.
When and How Is Reporting About Suicide Rates Effective?
So, if reporting that suicide is likely over the holidays could cause more suicide, when and how should the media report on issues like the high rate of veteran suicide? Something that is not mentioned in studies on this issue is obvious to us. Reporting the facts of the matter in media likely to be read or watched by those concerned is appropriate. On the other hand, dramatizing suicide or even making the person who ends their life a hero is dangerous. That is what happened with the German book two centuries ago. Impressionable young men were shown a noble or heroic example of how to act when jilted in love. If the story had simply suggested that they look for another girlfriend, nobody would have bought or read the book because that would have been common sense advice!
Veteran suicide is a serious issue that needs to be reported and discussed openly. What needs to be avoided is anything that romanticizes ending one’s life!