Sunshine and suicide

Debunking some myths about suicide

Posted Apr 25, 2009

If you ever want to stump someone with a trivia question, ask this: "In which month are suicide rates highest?"

After you receive an (incorrect) answer, you can assert that suicides are highest in June. (This assumes you're in the Northern Hemisphere; in the Southern Hemisphere, suicides peak around December.) Indeed, there's a strong relationship between the amount of sunlight and suicide - it's just in the opposite direction we expect.

Yes, dark days can make us feel depressed, but they rarely drive us to suicide. Most people who attempt suicide already suffer from severe depression, regardless of the weather. Extremely depressed people, though, have difficulty formulating any kind of concrete plan to kill themselves; carrying out such a plan is even tougher because they rarely have the energy to do so. If anything, a lack of sunshine further saps their motivation.

Some suggest that a similar process is behind the FDA's warnings that antidepressants raise the risk of suicide. Like sunshine, antidepressants may give people a quick surge of energy before they can feel better or think clearly. This explains why patients have to be closely monitored when they begin a new treatment regimen. (We should mention that this short-term increase in suicide risk is very, very small and only relevant to certain types of antidepressants.)

Unfortunately, this whole sunshine/suicide misconception has probably reinforced a couple of other myths about suicide:

Myth #2: Scandinavian countries -- such as Sweden and Norway -- have the highest suicide rates.

This isn't true. In reality, suicide is highest in Eastern European countries like Russia, Belarus, and Lithuania.

Myth #3: Suicide increases around the Christmas holidays.

Sure, we can all think of times when we felt blue around the holidays, but again, this is very unlikely to trigger suicide. Quite the contrary: suicide actually decreases around Christmas and other major holidays, when most people are reconnecting with family and friends.

FYI: Two of the best sources of information on suicide and its prevention can be found at the CDC and the World Health Organization websites.

(This post was co-authored by Josh Foster.)