Suicide Risk and the "False Promises" of Holiday Cheer

It’s New Year's Day, not Christmas, which brings a spike in suicide rates.

Posted Dec 06, 2018

There’s no doubt that suicide rates are climbing at astronomical proportions across the board. Elementary-school-aged children all the way through older adults are at risk of viewing suicide as a solution to emotional and psychological troubles. While there are probably few of us who have not, at one time or another, wished that we could “disappear,” the decision to make a permanent exit from life is something else altogether.

Depression poses a risk for suicide. Exposure to other suicides is also a risk; this is the contagion effect. If you’ve never heard or seen someone take that final ultimate step, the idea of suicide can be more repellent and unthinkable than if you have lost a friend or family member to suicide or if you hear news stories about the death of someone by suicide.

Desperation can also be the motivator behind making a decision to end one’s life. Individuals who feel cornered by their circumstances and feel they have no place to turn and nowhere to hide may falsely believe that suicide is the best answer to their problems. Incessant bullying by others, financial ruin, failed relationships, and the risk of public humiliation are also risk factors. Have you ever heard someone assure another person who is dealing with some heave stress or frustration use the words, “Calm down, it’s not worth killing yourself over”? Today, with the 24-hour news cycle, people are hearing that some people do believe some things are worth “killing themselves over” and this is tragically spreading through communities and populations.

Do Thoughts of Suicide take a Holiday at the Holidays?

There’s been a myth that’s been perpetuated for decades that the risk of suicide goes up on Christmas Day. It was believed that the false cheer and bonhomie that are woven into the Western holiday narrative were too much for those dealing with suicide ideation. Recent widespread studies, though, have shown that the lead-in to Christmas and the following week are actually a protective factor that helps keep people safe for that period (Hofstra, Elfeddali, Bakker,... van der Feltz-Cornelis, 2018).

This may be due to the frequency of gatherings and social engagement during this period. Individuals may feel better during this time as they feel more strongly connected to others and may feel hopeful that they can dig their way out of their feelings of hopelessness and desperation. There may also be a sense of obligation to others during the holidays that keeps people from taking their lives. When they are able to recognize the value their presence holds for others, they may be able to take energy and motivation from this. Hope is a powerful tool and it is the tool that helps people move from despair to the belief that they will be able to solve the problems that seem so desperately overwhelming.

The “Broken Promises” Effect

Unfortunately, once Christmas and Boxing Day have come and gone, the socializing tends to ebb and people are turning their attention to more self-involved pursuits. New Year’s resolutions become a focus and people may be exhausted by all of the cheer and joy they mustered during the lead-in to the big holiday. Unfortunately, individuals who are wrestling with thoughts of suicide may now believe that the promises of peace, goodwill, comfort, and joy, which are woven into the spirit of the holiday, were promises that won’t be honored once the holiday has passed (Deisenhammer, Stigibauer, & Kemmler, 2018). Thus, the New Year celebration actually presents a rise in suicide that overshadows the Christmas lull. As the New Year arrives, individuals may feel overwhelmed at the thought of having to make it through another day that is fraught with their desperation and feelings of hopelessness and emptiness (Hofstra, Elfeddali, Bakker, . . . van der Feltz-Cornelis, 2018).

What Can You Do to Help those at Risk?

If you know, or just suspect, someone is wrestling with feelings of desperation, hopelessness, or suicidal ideation:

  1. Stay in contact after the holiday has come and gone. If a person feels that they are “off the hook,” now that the celebrating and family gatherings have ended for the season, they may be more likely to believe that “now” is the best time to make a crucial decision that might lead them to end their lives.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – it won’t push a person to take action. Ask them questions such as, How are you feeling? Are you considering harming yourself? Have you had thoughts like this before? Have you tried to hurt yourself in the past? Have you thought about how you might harm yourself? Are you able to access the things that you would need?
  3. Research suggests that giving a person in this state the opportunity to actually express their feelings without being censored can be therapeutic for that person. Don’t be afraid to “go there” in the conversation.
  4. If you feel the person is at risk, don’t leave them alone. If the person is willing to go to the hospital with you, and you feel safe doing so, take them to the emergency room. If that’s not an option, call 911 and let them know the circumstances of the person’s current state and the person’s location.
  5. Don’t assume that it’s “your job” to save someone from taking their own life. You can encourage the person to get help, you can reach out to emergency services, and you can be present for that person through this process. However, just as your queries about how a person feels won’t cause a person to take their own life, there is nothing you can do to keep that person from making the decision to take their own life.

If you are considering self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

References

Hofstra, E., Elfeddali, I., Bakker, M., . . . van der Feltz-Cornelis, C. M. (2018). Springtime peaks and christmas troughs: A national longitudinal population-based study into suicide incidence time trends in the Netherlands. Frontiers in Psychiatry, February.  DOI : https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00045

Deisenhammer, E. A., Stigibauer, G. K., & Kemmler, G. (2018). Timing aspects of suicide: Frequency of suicide in relation to birthday, holidays, weekdays, season, birth month. Neuropsychiatrie, 32, 93-100.

Beauchamp, G. A., Ho, M. L., & Yin, S. (2014). Variation in Suicide Occurrence by Day and during Major American Holidays. Journal of Emergency Medicine (0736-4679), 46(6), 776–781. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jemermed.2013.09.023

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