Suicide is more common around the holidays, right?
It is a myth that suicide rates increase around the holidays. Perhaps because we hope that the holidays will be a time of enhanced joy and connection, it feels especially poignant when someone dies by suicide at this time of year. The gap is especially great between the wishes for happy celebrations, and the loss of a loved one. So, although the subjective experience may be that we lose more people to suicide at this time of year, the data tell us otherwise. In the US, completed suicide is actually lowest in December, and the rate peaks in the spring and the fall. This pattern has not changed in recent years.
Suicide is a global and year-round phenomenon. The World Health Organization estimates that 800,000 people die by suicide each year – that is one person every 40 seconds. Rates vary by country, but it is a global phenomenon. Suicides accounts for 1.4% of all deaths globally with 79% of suicides occurring in low-and middle-income countries. Suicide occurs throughout the lifespan and is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year-olds globally.
If it’s not seasonal, what does increase risk? Mental illness, particularly the combination of depression and/or substance use disorders, are associated with about 90% of completed suicides. According to NAMI, other factors that increase risk are family history of suicide, intoxication, and access to firearms.
Loneliness, hopelessness, and helplessness. Coupled with the subjective experience of feeling like there is no way out, no light at the end of the tunnel, the experience of social isolation, rejection and alienation are associated with suicidal thoughts and actions. Given the stigma associated with mental illness, it may be that the interpersonal experience of being shunned and ostracized due to one’s mental illness – leading to feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, and helplessness – are more predictive of risk for suicide than the mental illness itself.
What if I am concerned about someone? We can come up will all kinds of reasons to avoid difficult conversations, including the notion that we don’t want to “ruin” the holiday, we don’t want to “put the idea of suicide in someone’s head,” and we don’t want to “make things worse” by talking about suicide. The truth is that if you are concerned about someone during these holidays, perhaps the single most generous gift you could give them would be your time, and attention, and loving concern. Talking about suicide does not increase risk. Ignoring signs that someone might be at risk for suicide, just might.
Higher incidence of suicide around the holidays is a myth, but the disproportionate burden of suicide and mental illness around the globe – in low, middle and high income countries alike – is not. Take home message: regardless of the time of year, holiday or no holiday, people and resources are available to help those at risk for suicide. The key is to connect.