Journalists perpetuate myth about suicide during winter holidays

 
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December 14, 2018

Two-thirds of news stories that discussed suicide and the holiday season last winter perpetuated the false belief that suicides rise during the holidays, finds a new analysis from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.

In actuality, Americans are least likely to commit suicide in November and December, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The month of May ranked highest for the average number of suicides per day in 2015, followed by July and then March, according to the CDC’s most recently available data, which Annenberg obtained through a special request.

Among all months, November and December ranked 12th and 11th, respectively, the Annenberg study notes.

Dan Romer, Annenberg’s research director, told Journalist’s Resource that he examined written content from newspapers, online news organizations and TV and radio stations that appeared in a search of Nexis’ online news archive. He looked for news and features stories published in the United States between November 15, 2017 and January 31, 2018.

Of the 31 stories he found that discussed suicide and the holiday season, 65 percent perpetuated the holiday-suicide myth. The other 35 percent debunked it. Romer said almost all the stories that provided misinformation — or included quotes from someone who provided bad information — were from newspapers in small towns and cities, many of which were in rural areas.

Nationally, suicide rates are on the rise. They slowly increased each year between 1999 and 2016, according to the CDC. Romer explained that promoting false information about a spike in suicides during the winter holidays could harm people feeling depressed or suicidal during those periods.

“It could just be a trigger that would encourage them to do the same thing — it’s a contagion concern,” Romer, who is also the director of Annenberg’s Adolescent Communication Institute, told Journalist’s Resource during a telephone interview.

When journalists write about depression and suicide during the holidays, they often are trying to aid their communities by raising awareness and sharing information on where people can seek help. While well intentioned, their work could backfire.

“People think they’re helping and they’re doing the opposite,” Romer explained to Journalist’s Resource. “With suicide, they’re making things worse, potentially.”

Romer said he does this content analysis annually, partly to call attention to the problem. He started in 2000, after he began working with multiple national organizations to develop guidelines to help journalists improve their coverage of suicide. At the time, he had heard that journalists were falsely reporting that suicides increase during the winter holidays. Romer decided to analyze news coverage between late 1999 and early 2000 to see if that was true — and it was.

In most years since then, the stories Romer examined have tended to reinforce the suicide-holiday myth, his research shows. Over time, however, the percentage of stories perpetuating the myth has fallen. In 1999-2000, nearly 80 percent of stories gave bad information.

The Annenberg study offers examples of news stories that promote or debunk the myth. Among the  examples of stories that promote the myth:

  • “A Wilmington, Del., News Journal story about people struggling with addiction quoted the CEO of a counseling service as saying: ‘For some, you see an increase in suicide and depression around the holidays because the holidays can be such a difficult time for so many people, especially when the world in inundating you with cheer.’ (Dec. 23, 2017)”
  • “A columnist for the Hutchinson Leader in Minnesota wrote: ‘It has long been observed that the rate of suicides and interfamilial violence goes up during times of traditional family gatherings.’ (Dec. 27, 2017)”

Among the stories that debunked the myth are these two:

  • “In a story on ‘supporting the struggling’ at holiday time, the Gaylord Herald Times, of Michigan, said: ‘According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is a longstanding myth that suicides occur more frequently during the holiday season. The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics has reported that the suicide rate is at its lowest in December, with peaks in the spring and the fall.’ (Dec. 28, 2017)”
  • “Just after New Year’s Day, in the Riverton Ranger (Wyoming), columnist Randy Tucker wrote about post-holiday melancholy: ‘It is often a very persistent experience following the holidays, a time when holiday cheer often leads to feelings of isolation. Combined with the depression familiar during the winter months, common knowledge claims suicide rates are highest during the dark days of the New Year – but the opposite is true.’”

Romer eventually plans to write a formal research paper presenting his findings since 2000. Next year, he said he will expand his inquiry by examining information shared on Twitter about suicide and the winter holidays.

 

You can find the recommendations for reporting on suicide that Annenberg helped develop at ReportingonSuicide.org. If you’re looking for research on suicide, check out our roundups on how news coverage impacts suicide trends and on bullying and teen suicide. We also summarized a study that found that one-third of a sample of American soldiers who had attempted suicide did not have a prior mental health diagnosis.

 

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Citation: Romer, Dan; et al. “Journalists Trying To Help Readers Cope May Mislead on Holiday-Suicide Myth,” analysis from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, December 2018.