'Tis the season to be jolly. To deck the halls. And--since we're rolling with the cliches here--to eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Perhaps by suicide, that most tragic of holiday "traditions."
But is a rise in suicides during the holidays truly traditional, as conventional wisdom has it?
Sociologist David P. Phillips and UC San Diego graduate student John Wills suspected that the notion might be about as fact-based as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, so they decided to make an official count.
They studied 188,047 suicides in the United States from 1973 and 1979, compared their timing and concluded that there is generally no increased risk of suicide around the holidays. In fact, they discovered, there were actually fewer suicides on or around certain holidays--Thanksgiving, Christmas and Memorial Day.
The other major holidays (New Year's Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day) scored low in suicides before the holidays and higher than normal just afterwards. Phillips' and Wills' research was published earlier this year in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior.
"If you put together the six major public holidays for any given year and examine the five days before and the five days after, that total period, then you find that suicides are down by about 111 for the holiday period for the entire year," said Phillips, who teaches in UC San Diego's sociology department.
He added that it's possible that earlier researchers sometimes associated increases in suicides with holidays because they examined only the periods following holidays.
Effect of Newspaper Stories
"Suicide is not very much influenced by seasonal factors," he continued. "In addition, it doesn't vary much by day of the week. It's higher than usual on Monday but not very much higher. Actually, one of the main things that influence the short-term fluctuation of suicide is the presence of a suicide story in the newspaper.
"A suicide story is followed by a much larger jump in suicides than any other seasonal factor. You find significant increases in suicides after suicide stories. . . . The more publicity given the suicide story, the greater increase in the number of suicides and it occurs mainly in the geographic area where the publicity occurs."
The Phillips-Wills study did not cover other mental health problems such as depression, traditionally thought to occur with greater frequency during holiday seasons.
"It's possible that other symptoms of psychological ill health do appear more strongly around the holidays," Phillips suggested, "but the most extreme symptom of psychological ill health, namely suicide, seems to indicate the holidays are good for you, not bad for you. . . . I'm personally not surprised by that because, after all, holidays are designed to be good for you."
Though the study's data covered only suicides in the 1970s, Phillips, who has also published other research papers on suicide, said he "has confidence that the same patterns hold now."
What Phillips is somewhat puzzled about, though, is why three holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas and Memorial Day) produced no increase of suicides in his data, while three other holidays (New Year's Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day) registered an increase after the holidays.
"The two sets of holidays have different effects," he said. "I have no preliminary guesses about why but Christmas and Thanksgiving do seem to be holidays when families get together. That might have a different type of protective effect than the Fourth of July and Labor Day. But then how do you explain the fact that Memorial Day behaves like Christmas and Thanksgiving?"
Lack of Data
At the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center, Charles Gubera has no data on seasonal increases or decreases in actual suicides, suicide attempts or suicide contemplations.
But Gubera, who manages the center's crisis lines, has generally found that calls to the center's crisis lines are "down before the holidays and they do pick up after the holidays. It's like whenever there's anything that's going on and keeps people's attention or keeps them busy doing things, we get fewer calls.
"During the World Series, calls are down; during the Pope's visit, during the Olympics, during the earthquake, calls are down. Then after that, the calls pick up again."
At Charter Hospital of Long Beach, which offers a telephone crisis line for teen-agers and for adults, David Mann reported that no statistics were available on suicide calls.
A 'General Trend'
But, said the clinical psychologist who directs the hospital's Youth Help Team and consults with the hospital's adult crisis line, "Crisis calls increase during the holiday period, both for adults and for teen-agers. That's the general trend across the country for crisis lines, especially building up to the holiday seasons."
Ronald Maris, director of the Center for the Study of Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior at the University of South Carolina and also the editor of the journal, which published the Phillips-Wills study, said that the duo's findings on lower incidence of suicides during the holidays are "pretty consistent" with the work of other researchers.
However, he added, "There hasn't been a lot of research on this. A lot of Phillips' work is fairly original. He goes into great detail. There's not enough good, careful work done on this subject."