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Egg Nog and Bitter Ruminations: A Christmas Whodunit

By Christopher Kemp · December 14th, 2000 · Science & Technology
Christmas is coming and Santa will soon be on his way, skipping lightly over the rooftops with gifts for all the good little boys and girls. But grisly though it sounds, some scientists believe Santa's arrival is responsible for a dramatic increase in the number of suicides each year. Accordingly, they believe there are more jumpers, floaters and bleeders at Christmas than any other time of the year.

Others disagree, claiming there is no correlation.

So, who's right? Is it an urban myth or a scientific fact that suicides increase around the holidays?

Well, as with most things, it's not quite that simple.

"Everything kind of evens out," said Terry Daly, assistant to Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Carl Parrott. "It's amazing. If you go all the way back to 1900, you'll see almost the same number of suicides as you do this year."

Daly supplied Hamilton County's suicide statistics for every November, December and January since 1993. On average, seven people commit suicide each November, five commit suicide each December and nine commit suicide each January in Hamilton County.

"The great majority of those committing suicide are still predominantly white males," Daly said. There is a lot of month-to-month variability in the number of suicides, he said, and there doesn't seem to be a pattern.

But theories of increased suicides at Christmas shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. Doctors have long known that Christmas and New Year's Day can be difficult for some and are marked by depression and loneliness. In fact, the effects of "holiday syndrome" were first described by Cattell in 1955, thus: "diffuse anxiety, numerous regressive phenomena including marked feelings of helplessness, possessiveness and increased irritability, nostalgic or bitter ruminations about holiday experiences of youth, depressive affect and a wish for magical resolution of problems."

In other words, more of a Norman Bates than a Norman Rockwell Christmas.

But after naming and characterizing the problem in the 1950s, scientists spent the next several years deciding if it even existed. Sure, everyone has bitter ruminations and wishes for a magical resolution of problems from time to time, but is there a measurable effect? No one knew the answer. Then, in the mid-1970s, came the publication of a U.S. Public Health Service report detailing the daily number of suicides for the years 1972-1976.

In a 1980 study, published in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, researchers used this new information, pooling the recorded number of daily suicides to look for changes in the averages around major public holidays. They studied New Year's Day, Washington's Birthday, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Surprisingly, the holidays did have an effect. Researchers saw the national daily average drop on the days leading up to a public holiday and then rise again on the days immediately after. It was holiday syndrome at play, causing a fluctuation in the suicide rate. More importantly, the dip in suicides before the holiday was greater than the sudden peak afterwards. So, the net effect of each holiday was actually to reduce the number of daily suicides.

That's good news then. Santa's off the hook. Phew.

Taking a closer look, the team found that each holiday had a different effect, with some actually causing a net increase in the number of suicides. Among the holidays, two distinct groups emerged, each with a distinct effect on the suicide rate. Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day make up one group and are associated with an unusually low risk of suicide before, during and after the holiday. The other group -- Independence Day, Labor Day and New Year's Day -- is characterized by a low risk of suicide before the holiday and a much higher risk afterward.

Researchers realized grouping all the holidays together, as in previous studies, had hidden the real effect of some of the holidays. In other words, Christmas lowered the suicide rates; but, come New Year's Day, the numbers peaked dramatically.

This was supported by a 1985 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry. Researchers compared the daily number of suicides for each day between Dec. 18 and Jan. 8 and, according to the report, "Specific day-by-day comparisons revealed a significantly higher number of suicides on January 1 than one week later, January 8, and one week earlier, December 25. There was no significant difference between the number of suicides on December 25 and one week earlier, December 18."

The study concludes, "Thus there appears to be no evidence that there is a change in suicide rates over the Christmas holidays, but there does seem to be an increase in suicide rates on January 1 and after."

Scientists say this is because of something called the broken-promise effect. People at a high risk of suicide postpone their plans over Christmas, looking forward to spending time with family and taking a break from work. But when the holidays fail to meet their expectations, New Year's Day acts as a catalyst and they commit suicide anyway. In even greater numbers than expected.

Knowing all this, let's take another look at Terry Daly's figures for Hamilton County: seven suicides in November, five in December and nine in January. Although the numbers are too low to reach a statistical conclusion, they follow the national trend, with suicides falling in December from November and then rising to much higher levels in January.

So there you have it. The mystery finally has been solved. Santa is no murderer after all.

But New Year's Day? It's a killer.

CONTACT CHRIS KEMP: letters@citybeat.com



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