Blue Christmas? Not Exactly.

New data debunks myth that depression and suicide rates increase during the holiday season, points to need for heightened awareness of risks in later winter after the holidays.

While the holidays are a joyous time for many, they can also be a time that brings about much stress and emotional turmoil. Many people have high expectations for what the holidays will entail, and if those expectations are not met, the sense of disappointment that results can lead to feelings of sadness and regret. Individuals who have lost loved ones, or who are away from loved ones, can find themselves struggling with feelings of loneliness, as the holidays are typically a time for families and friends to come together. Additionally, the financial stress of the holidays can cause many people to feel overwhelmed and burdened, potentially bringing about feelings of anxiety and/or depression.
For these reasons, it is understandable why many would assume that the rates of depression and suicide would rise during this time of year. Yet, such false assumptions have resulted in countless media outlets releasing stories that provoke the myth. One study found that during the 2012-2013 holiday period, nearly three quarters of newspaper articles published stories that discussed the prominence of suicide during the holidays, further perpetuating the myth.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, however, paints a different picture. The CDC reports that there exists a trend of suicide rates being especially low during the month of December. Many behavioral and mental healthcare facilities see a decline in admissions during the period of time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s and, in regards to individuals who were previously partaking in treatment, there exists a significant drop in attendance during the holiday season. In striking contrast, research has shown that the rates of suicide, as well as the number of admissions for mental health treatment, spike during the spring and fall months.

The drawback of the prolongation of this myth is that it diverts attention from the real problem at hand, which is that depression is a serious mental health condition that may be triggered by the holiday season, but that it is not the sole factor. Many people suffer from depressive symptoms before, during, and after this time of year and the causes do not solely lay in the fact that more festivities take place between November and January. Factors such as a lack of sunlight during winter months, coupled with cold weather that prevents people from being more mobile and exercising outdoors can exacerbate depression symptoms that are already present. When these factors are compounded by the stresses that present during the holidays, that exacerbation can become even more profound.

Another paradigm that has also debunked the myth has to do with the dramatic increase in the amount of people who seek mental health services following the holiday season. In most circumstances, the symptoms of depression that become present during the holidays will fade as time passes. In some cases, however, the symptoms may persist or even gradually become worse. It is necessary then to closely examine the previously mentioned spike that occurs in suicide rates and in the prevalence of people seeking mental health treatment following the holidays. This fact suggests that the onset of symptoms may, in fact, be occurring during the holiday season, yet are left ignored until later months. For this reason, we need to take note of symptoms that may become apparent during the holidays, yet we must focus on the post-holiday time in order to best be of support for our loved ones.

Those who have been receiving mental health services prior to the holiday season frequently become disengaged in the therapeutic process during the holidays as social interactions often increase, of which produces an improved mood for depression sufferers. The hectic schedules that the holidays bring about can also prevent those in treatment to adhere to care recommendations. This decline in treatment adherence can play a significant role in why there is such a large increase in suicide and mental healthcare admission rates during the months following the holidays.

“It is easy to see why continuously engaging in mental health treatment can fall down on one’s list of priorities during the holiday season,” said Bonnie Stewart, LPC, Clinical Program Director. “However, we can’t negate the seriousness of the risks involved when people fail to maintain their treatment regimen. There are many benefits to receiving mental health care during the holidays as beneficial skills for coping and managing depression symptoms can be taught and practiced.”

Behavioral healthcare treatment centers like Mount Regis Center offer numerous options for therapeutic interventions that can help people who are suffering from depression and other mental health conditions find the relief that they need, while also teaching them the coping skills needed to successfully manage future stresses.