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Jane Ahlin, Published December 15 2012

Ahlin: Facts explode the myth about holidays, suicide

In the 1993 romantic comedy “Sleepless in Seattle,” the characters Annie (Meg Ryan) and Becky (Rosie O’Donnell) are in a meeting with male co-workers when one of the co-workers says, “It’s easier (for a woman) to be killed by a terrorist than it is to find a husband (if she’s) over the age of 40.”

Annie quickly retorts, “That statistic is not true.”

To which Becky says, “That’s right, it’s not true. But it feels true.”

The laugh line works because we all understand how easily false perceptions take on the surety of fact. (Say something over and over again, get others to repeat it, and suddenly, it’s the truth.) Phony assertions often turn out to be funny, as in the movie. Unfortunately, some are tragic, such as nonexistent WMDs in Iraq used as an excuse for war or the notion that homosexuality is a disease to be cured.

Another dark example of a cultural assumption conflicting with truth concerns the holidays and suicide rates. The number of suicides in America does not increase at holiday time. And yet, to paraphrase the movie character Becky, it feels as if it does. Particularly this year – with the recent suicides of at least three young people who either were in the process of growing up in our community or had grown up here not long ago – we can’t help but feel as if the holiday season plays a role, as if the Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day period with its expectations of boundless good cheer is, in itself, a trigger for the fraught act.

Here are facts cited recently in USA Today. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention statistics for the years 1999-2010, which were analyzed by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, said the idea that people are more inclined toward suicide during the holidays is a “myth.” Instead, statistics for the U.S. show that “November, December and January actually have the lowest number of suicides per day. …” Spring and summer have the highest rates. In 2010, the biggest month for suicides was July – approximately 111 per day. The daily average during the holiday season was 98 and for the year, 105.

Because facts don’t conform to cultural expectations, media outlets perpetuate the myth. The USA Today article reported 77 percent of media stories concerning suicide at holiday time in 1999 included “erroneously, that suicides increased over the holidays.” After a concerted effort to educate the public about the real data concerning when suicides occur, the percentage of stories citing the false connection decreased significantly. Once public education waned, however, the media returned to tying suicide to the holidays. Last year, the percentage of stories including the falsehood was back up to 76 percent.

David Litts, an expert from the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, sees risk in the holiday myth. Quoted by USA Today, he said, “An article that leads (those with suicidal thoughts) to believe it’s normal for people in their situation to end their life may be just that little nudge that puts them over.”

Along with that risk for those who are feeling suicidal is a more subtle concern for the way the rest of us react to suicide. Because we don’t like things that cannot be explained, we’re inclined to simplify the complexity of suicide by tying it to something specific, particularly something that doesn’t seem threatening to us. (If we can just put the irrational into a framework of rationality, we’ll be OK.)

We can’t, of course. What we can do, however, is become educated about warning signs for suicide and educated about depression and addiction. We can support the work of suicide prevention groups, and we can support the survivors.

After suicide, nobody can change the wretched reality for families and friends. And yet, as our minister said at the funeral for a young man who killed himself a few weeks ago, we can make the conscious choice not to let suicide define his memory. The importance of his life is not described by his tragic death.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.