The Christmas-New Year’s holiday season can be a double-edge sword when it comes to one’s mental health. On the one hand, it is a festive period where individuals get together with loved ones to share meals, exchange gifts, and renew their feelings of belongingness. Regrettably, for others, this is a time when their sense of loneliness, alienation, and social isolation are particularly poignant and evident. With that in mind, I decided to conduct a quick search of the literature to gauge what the consensus was (if any) regarding the links between suicide and this particular holiday season. While doing so, I came across an article that expanded the research question from a single cause of death (suicide) to all deaths. This is the study that I briefly discuss here (see CNN’s coverage on this intriguing link here).
David Phillips, Gwendolyn E. Barker, and Kimberly M. Brewer authored a 2010 paper in Social Science & Medicine, in which they analyzed all official and computerized US death certificates for the years 1979 to 2004 (n = 57,451,944). They conducted a very broad range of analyses that are beyond the scope of the current post (but interested readers can access the full paper here). For example, they broke down the deaths into different categories such as death-on-arrivals (DOA), emergency department (ED) settings, and other settings (non-DOA/ED settings). They also looked at five major disease-related sources of deaths (circulatory; neoplasms; respiratory; endocrine/nutritional/metabolic; and digestive) to see if these would each exhibit noticeable spikes during the holiday seasons (e.g., the link between heart attacks and Christmas-New Year’s holiday season, Phillips et al., 2004). They also broke down the data into different demographic groups (age, biological sex, race, and education level) to gauge whether the spikes (if any) are linked to particular groups of individuals but not others.
Here are the key “bottom line” findings (see the four panels of Figure 1, p. 1464):
1) There were more DOA/ED deaths on December 25, December 26, and January 1 than on any other day of the year. In other words, there were noticeable spikes on those particular days. This is quite an astonishing finding.
2) The death spikes at Christmas and New Year’s were not replicated for non-DOA/ED settings. Rather, there was a steady increase in the number of deaths during the holiday season beginning right after Christmas and lasting roughly one week.
3) When all settings are pooled, there are more deaths during the season in question.
The authors offer nine possible explanations for these findings, none of which are particularly compelling. They conclude (p. 1470): “Christmas and New Year seem to be risk factors for death, but the mechanisms underlying these risk factors are currently unknown.”
On a perhaps less morbid note, readers might be interested in my earlier Psychology Today article on New Year’s resolutions.
I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
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