Many believe suicide rates increase in December. Research shows it’s the opposite. Here’s why.

December doesn't have higher suicides rates.
Winter holiday months typically have lower daily suicide rates than the rest of the year, contrary to popular belief. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)

December is known for its holiday festivities, but news stories often warn of an increased risk of suicide during this time. Now, new research finds the link between the holiday season and suicide is actually a myth.

The study, which was conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, analyzed national data on suicide from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and found that the winter holiday months typically have lower daily suicide rates than the rest of the year. December also usually has the lowest incidences of suicides of the year, the data shows.

The study explored what the media says about suicide and the holidays as well, and found that while 60% of newspaper stories published during the 2022-23 holiday season debunked the holiday-suicide myth, 40% incorrectly supported it.

The researchers also found in a separate survey that 4 out 5 adults incorrectly said that December was the highest month for suicides in the U.S.

What's behind this myth and why are suicide rates lower in December? Experts explain.

What's behind the holiday-suicide myth?

It's not clear where this originated. "We’ve been doing this since 2000 as a complement to the suicide reporting recommendations that were released at that time and that encouraged journalists to dispel myths about suicide," Dan Romer, research director for the Annenberg center who worked on the study, tells Yahoo Life. "We discovered that this was one of the recurring stories around the holidays that was not helpful and should not be promoted to the public."

But the findings are "not surprising" to people who study suicide, clinical psychologist Craig Bryan, director of the division of recovery and resilience at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and author of the book Rethinking Suicide: Why Prevention Fails, and How We Can Do Better, tells Yahoo Life. "The myth has proven to be especially persistent, despite the ready availability of data that clearly contradict it," he says.

The reason why the myth has stuck around despite evidence to the contrary isn't entirely clear, Bryan says. However, there are some theories. "The holidays are commonly perceived and experienced as a time of happiness and joy. We do things like visit family, friends and loved ones, take time off from work and school, express gratitude and appreciation to one another," he says. "Because suicide doesn’t fit with these perceptions, it is easier to pay attention to and remember instances of suicide that occur during these times."

It can also just seem "logical" for suicide to be more common during this time, Hillary Ammon, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety & Women’s Emotional Wellness, tells Yahoo Life. "If people are more likely to have seasonal affective disorder and increased stressors from the holidays, it may make sense to have increased thoughts of suicide," she says. "Yet, the data does not support this."

It's easy to imagine how people may feel isolated or alone if they don't have family or friends to visit and share in the positive experiences tied in with the holiday season, Bryan says. "At the same time, we can easily ignore or dismiss information that contradicts these impressions or beliefs," he says. "This combination of factors can cause the myth to become especially 'sticky' in people’s minds."

Why are suicide rates lower in December?

Romer and his colleagues mapped suicide rates in the U.S. on a chart, which show a clear dip in December and a spike in the summer months. The study also mapped out suicide rates in Australia, which experiences its summer during our winter, and also found higher rates during the warmer months and dips during colder times of year.

So why does December have lower suicide rates? "One possibility is that people spend more time inside with family, roommates and others during the winter months, when it is colder. This can increase social connections, which protects against suicide, and reduces opportunities to attempt suicide, which often occur when people are isolated or alone," Bryan says.

It could also be tied to sleep. "Insomnia and other sleep disruptions are known risk factors for suicide [and] people tend to report fewer sleep problems during the winter months," Bryan says. "Research also shows that people tend to sleep longer during the winter months, which may reduce the risk of suicide."

Ultimately, there's still a lot to learn. "There needs to be more research into this question, as well as why suicides are actually higher in the summer months," Ammon says. "What is apparent is the trend of more suicides in the summer months."

That said, suicide can happen any time.

Experts stress that while trends show suicide rates are lower in December in the U.S., suicide can happen at any time. "It is not the time of year that matters as much as factors, such as the state of the economy and an individual’s state of mind," Romer says. "Age is also a major risk factor, with older people more at risk due to health issues and loss of family and friends."

Adds Ammon: "Unfortunately, suicides do occur year-round and there are some populations that are at greater risk." Those include people with chronic mental illness or severe depression, those with a history of prior suicide attempts, people with unstable housing and those struggling with substance misuse, she says.

If someone in your life has expressed suicidal thoughts, Bryan says the most important thing you can do is to listen to them. "Ask them to talk about what’s going on in their lives and how you can help them address those problems or issues," he says. "It’s also important to ask if they have access to firearms or medications, and how these items are currently stored in their home. Offer to help lock up or temporarily reduce access to these common suicide attempt methods."

It's also important to stress that they are loved and matter to others, Romer says. "If necessary, seeking professional help is also recommended," he says. "If it’s an emergency, using the crisis 988 line is also a good idea."

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.