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Spike in suicides around the Christmas holidays a Chris-myth

A Penn study debunks stories making the connection.

Still from "It's a Wonderful Life"
Still from "It's a Wonderful Life"Read more

Stories about a spike in suicides caused by "holiday blues" and "Christmas depression" usually begin to start circulating about mid-December.

You know the ones. They usually begin quoting the holiday song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Then the stories segue into a variation of "but for many it's a time of dark despair." Cue a movie reference to Jimmy Stewart preparing to jump off a bridge or Gary Cooper about to leap from the roof of City Hall.

However, a statistical analysis of the data shows those stories are, ahem, Chris-myths.

In fact, the number of suicides drops during the holiday season.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate in the United States is lowest in December. Peaks come in Spring and Fall.

Problem is, many news organizations haven't caught up with the facts.

Could it be a misperception fueled by repeat viewings of It's a Wonderful Life and Meet John Doe?

"Despite what many people believe, the holiday-suicide link is truly a myth," said Dan Romer, associate director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

"Why are we concerned about stories that focus on the myth? The holidays are a time when the media talk about the stresses of the period," Romer said. "And contagion from press reporting is a validated phenomenon that can influence those who are already susceptible to suicide."

Nearly three-quarters of newspaper stories mentioning "suicide" and the "holidays" last year perpetuated the fiction, according to an Annenberg report released today (12/13/13). During the 2012-2013 holiday season 44 stories parroted the myth, 18 stories debunked it, and an additional 116 discussing suicide drew no correlation.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center has tracked press reports about the phenomenon since the 1999 holiday season.

The research isn't intended to dismiss concerns about suicides that could occur during the holiday season.

"There are a lot of suicides every day of the year," Romer said. "There just aren't more around the holidays."

The numbers remain sobering. Romer said that on average, nearly 100 people a day in the U.S. kill themselves during the holiday season and that following the 2008 financial collapse the suicide rate has increased in all months, especially for people between the ages of 35 and 64.