Josephine Ensign
Source: Josephine Ensign

Why do spring and depression go together? The seasonality of illness is fascinating and is proof that our environment matters quite a lot to our individual and collective/public health. In temperate regions of the world, injuries and drownings go up in the warmer months, and deaths from influenza and carbon-monoxide poisoning go up in the colder months. These make sense. But when we think of depression and suicide risk, most of us would guess that these peak in the fall and winter months–what with decreased hours of sunlight and the stresses of some of the major holidays. In the U.S., September is National Suicide Prevention Month and October is National Depression Awareness Month, and many news reports continue to falsely link higher rates of depression and suicide with fall and early winter.

Yet studies worldwide find that depression and suicide rates peak in late spring and early summer. High pollen counts, increased hours of sunshine, higher temperatures, and even an increase in thunderstorms (ah–that Shakespearean pathetic fallacy!) have been linked to higher rates of depression and suicide. Within psychology and sociology circles, this seasonal link is theorized to be from the fact that people generally have increased social pressures and interactions in the spring, which can increase stress. (see “The Season of Renewal and Suicide” by Brian Palmer, Slate, 12-7-12).

The most current statistics from the CDC on the leading causes of death in the U.S. (for 2015), list suicide (intentional self-harm) as the tenth leading cause of death, with the total number of deaths by suicide as 42,773. (Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24 years.) This continues the upward climb of suicide deaths in our country since the start of the Great Recession, with the largest increase being in people 45-64 years of age (peak wage-earning years.) With the possible exception of unintentional injuries, such as motor vehicle accidents, suicide is our most preventable form of mortality. And suicide deaths have serious impacts on the family members, friends, co-workers, and care providers who knew and loved the people who killed themselves. Note: they did not "commit" suicide as is still too commonly used; suicide is not a crime or a sin–it is a preventable travesty. Using the term "commit suicide" adds to the already debilitating stigma of mental illness.

So what are interventions that work to help prevent deaths by suicide?

1) Train healthcare providers to screen for depression, drug/alcohol use, bullying at school (for young people), history of adverse childhood events (especially sexual abuse), and suicidal ideation and attempts. In primary care screening for depression and suicide risk (as well as intimate-partner violence), a standard question is “Do you have access to a firearm?” This screening question seems so obvious, as access to a lethal weapon is an important part of the overall risk assessment. Over half of all deaths by suicide are by firearms. 

2) Educate the general public about the warning signs of severe depression, problematic drug/alcohol use, and suicide, and give them the proper tools to be able to intervene effectively. Reinforce the fact that talking about suicide in a supportive way does not encourage suicide (just as talking about sex or drug use with adolescents does not encourage them to have sex and use drugs.) An excellent (free and 24/7) resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). They can connect people with local crisis centers and assistance. Their services are also available in Spanish and for the deaf/hard of hearing. 

3) Implement a community-wide public mental health promotion (and depression/suicide prevention) program. One such model program that is cost-effective and that could be replicated in the U.S., is New Zealand’s All Right? Wellbeing Campaign, a Healthy Christchurch project that is being led by the Mental Health Foundation and the Canterbury District Health Board. As they state, “All Right is a social marketing campaign designed to help us think about our mental health and wellbeing. It’s about helping people realize that they’re not alone, encouraging them to connect with others, and supporting them to boost their wellbeing.” Although targeted at ongoing earthquake recovery efforts in the Christchurch area, this public mental health campaign could be most effective at building community resilience before disasters occur.