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Chances are that grown-ups know the truth about the holiday season’s biggest myth — the one concerning a certain elf, his generosity and his peculiar mode of travel.
But there’s another big lie that’s almost as pervasive.
No, Virginia, suicides do not increase around the holidays.
“That is a myth,” said Pat Lyden, executive director of the Suicide Prevention Education Alliance of Northeast Ohio.
Researchers have consistently debunked the old saw for at least 20 years. In fact, statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics show that December has the lowest suicide rate of any month of the year.
The holidays are “just not a time for suicide — that’s the bottom line,” said Dan Romer, an expert on suicide statistics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Yet the lie lingers. Why?
Lyden says the misconception is rooted in a pervasive public misunderstanding of what triggers suicides — and, more importantly, what does not.
“Untreated mental illness, such as depression, bipolar disorder (commonly called manic depression) and anxiety disorder are the main causes of suicide,” said Lyden, whose nonprofit organization teaches youths about warning signals.
“People, I think, expect more suicides at Christmas because they see people who have the blues, or who have loneliness,” she speculated. “But the blues and loneliness are not the same as major illness. This particular illness affects the brain, in the same way other diseases affect the heart or the pancreas or other organs.”
Romer blames the news media for perpetuating the misconception, and he has evidence to support his charge.
Stories about the purported suicide-holiday connection are perennial this time of year, and reporters regurgitate the dubious link, despite ample evidence that it’s wrong, Romer said.
In 2000, he used a computerized newspaper-archiving service to analyze the previous year’s stories in relation to national suicide statistics. He has repeated the exercise each year since. And each year, the Annenberg Center publicizes the results, aiming to educate reporters and quash the mythology.
For a while, Romer said, there was a trend toward truth. The number of stories mentioning the holiday link dwindled markedly, from 101 in 1999-2000 to only 14 by 2003-04.
At the same time, more and more of those stories debunked the myth, peaking in 2006-07 when more than nine of every 10 stories on the subject exposed the link as false.
Last year, though, the trend reversed. The number of newspaper stories about holiday-season suicides rose to 43 — the most since the first year of Romer’s work — and half of those supported the fraudulent link as fact.
“We’re trying to get rid of this myth, and it’s impossible,” Romer said. “It just keeps on going.”
When and why the falsehood originated is a mystery that no one has researched, Romer said. He hypothesized that it may arise from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1946 Frank Capra film that has become a holiday chestnut itself. In it, Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, is on the verge of suicide at Christmastime, but an angel saves him and shows Bailey how important his life has been.
Since then, Romer said, “the myth has been repeated lots of times in the movies and on TV.”
It’s so prevalent that even health-care professionals have bought into it, said Dr. Rachel Vreeman, a researcher and pediatrics professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine. In a study published in this month’s British Medical Journal, she and a colleague, Dr. Aaron Carroll, lump the suicide saw in with a host of other holiday myths that are universally held to be true. Among them: Sugar makes kids hyperactive; poinsettias are poisonous; eating at night makes you fat; and you lose most of your body heat through your head.
There are no data to support any of those, and evidence to refute them all, Vreeman said.
“What we’re saying is that everybody believes these,” Vreeman said, “and doctors are just like everybody else: Sometimes we believe things that just aren’t true.”
Not only do suicides drop at the holidays, but suicide attempts and suicidal tendencies seem to decline, according to several studies and to experts in real-world intervention.
Last year, the journal Social Science and Medicine published an analysis of more than 19,000 emergency-room admissions in England from 1976 to 2003, by University of Oxford researcher Helen Berger. Her conclusion: Self-induced injuries, overdoses, self-poisonings and other suicidal behaviors all dropped below typical weekly rates from Dec. 19 through Jan. 1 each year.
Yet all of the experts agree on one point: Individuals do buck trends, and some people do feel compelled to kill themselves during the holidays. But those tendencies, and the mental illnesses that underlie them, are treatable.
“Suicide can happen anytime,” stressed Thomas Swales, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University. “We’re here to help people who need help. This is what prevents suicides.”

By Jim Nichols
Religion News Service
Jim Nichols writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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