"It's A Wonderful Life" cast. (AP File)
Cathy Payne, USA TODAY
The myth that suicides spike during the holidays comes back to haunt us every year.
The months of November, December and January actually have the lowest number of suicides per day, according to the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, which analyzed 1999-2010 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It found that averages were highest in the spring and summer.
"There is still this sort of ironic thought that maybe there are people not happy at this time," says Annenberg's Dan Romer. He adds that songs and movies focused on the "holiday blues" -- including the perennial favorite It's a Wonderful Life -- also perpetuate the myth.
The center, which has tracked the media's reporting of suicides since 2000, looked at stories that linked suicides and the holidays. In 1999, 77% of those stories said, erroneously, that suicides increased over the holidays. The proportion of stories that supported that myth dropped after the center's analysis came out, but rose again last year to 76%.
"The return of the holiday-suicide connection may be related to the fact that the adult (ages 25 and older) suicide rate has increased in recent years in step with the Great Recession," says Romer, who has directed the study since its inception. "With more people affected by suicide, news stories about suicide may be more common over the holidays, bringing the myth back to our attention."
In 2010, there were 38,364 suicides in the USA, an average of 105 a day. The month with the highest daily average in 2010 was July, with 111.3. The lowest, 98.2, was December. The CDC says suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in 2010.
Suicide-prevention experts say stories perpetuating the myth are not only wrong but dangerous.
"An article that leads them to believe that it's normal for people in their situation to end their life may be just that little nudge that puts them over," says David Litts of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.
Litts says anyone contemplating suicide should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Those who know someone in distress can call as well, he says.
Media coverage needs to be more balanced, Litts says. Coverage should include ways to prevent suicide, such as recognizing warning signs, as well as stories about people who got through those dark times. "The number of people who positively adapt to life stresses far outweighs the number of people who do not," he says.
Those success stories may give hope to people with suicidal thoughts, Litts says. "The majority of people in their situation find a way to live. That might give them the courage to go on and keep looking for that way."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Suicide Prevention
National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline