Suicide rates are highest in spring — not around Christmas

No one's sure how the story of suicides increasing during holiday season got started (some researchers think it may have come from It's a Wonderful Life!), but it's not true.

The incremental stress of the holiday season isn't the sort of thing that drives people into suicide. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Chief Medical Officer Christine Moutier says that's the domain of "genetics, trauma, mental illness, and access to guns." But, ironically, telling people that winter blues are a common factor in suicide could be sufficient to drive those people into their own suicide.

So cut it out.

There might also be biological explanations for the phenomenon. Among the more fascinating: tree pollen. There's evidence that excess pollen in the air triggers the release of inflammatory proteins called cytokines into the upper airways, exacerbating mood disturbances in people who are prone to them. When scientists dumped tree pollen into the nasal cavities of rodents, the critters had more cytokine gene expression in their brains, and they become more anxious and socially withdrawn. An analysis in Denmark found that suicides increased by 13.2 percent when the pollen count was higher.

The science on that connection is still developing, but discussing a fake, wintertime suicide "epidemic" does nothing but confuse the issue. An analysis by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that, as recently as 2013, 70 percent of news articles on suicide perpetuated the holiday myth. Fortunately, that trend seems to be reversing: Last year just 22 of the 47 stories written on this topic perpetuated the myth, according to a report released by the Annenberg Center on Wednesday.

No, Suicides Don't Rise During the Holidays
[Olga Khazan/The Atlantic]

(Image: Santa Hat, Pezibear, CC-0)