Holiday Blues' Existence Questioned
> 12/17/2007 3:42:45 PM

As the winter holidays approach, many newspapers stuff our stockings with dire warnings about the "holiday blues". They lean on the narrative that depression and suicide rates rise as lonely people envy warmth and companionship, or as people with close families face increased stress on those relationships. However, not all news sources perpetuate this myth. The LA Times, for example, debunks the idea of rising holiday risk in an article that cites compelling evidence by Dr. Helen Bergen that there is actually a fall, not a rise, in the risk.

Dr. Bergen examined the records of over 30,000 self-harm incidents treated in the Oxford Emergency Department in every holiday season from 1976 to 2003. She found that rates of self-harm actually fell by around 40% in the days surrounding Christmas and New Years. This reduction held for patients suffering from social isolation, a finding that directly contradicts the image of the solitary person driven to suicide by the merriment of others. The statistics are a little more complicated for people who reported relationship problems. Patients with family problems showed a reduced risk before both holidays, but those with relationship problems showed an increase before New Years and a decrease before Christmas. If you know someone going through a rocky time with their partner, think about reaching out to them this New Year's Eve.

As is the case with many myths, this one contains a kernel of truth. There are a few confounding factors that occur around the holidays and might be responsible for the impression that suicide rates rise. Egg nog and other alcohols are consumed more heartily around the holidays. In addition to fueling drunk driving, drinking correlates with suicide attempts. However, Dr. Bergen controlled for this in her study. Another reason why depression might appear connected to the holidays is that days literally darken during winter. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) disheartens the 5% of the population whose moods darken as sunlight gets scarcer. For these people, holiday celebrations may be a crucial help to get them through the long winter.

Findings like Dr. Bergen's have been chipping away at the "holiday blues" myth over the past few years. According to Dan Romer, director of the Annenberg Adolescent Risk Communication Institute, more and more news sources are recognizing that the holidays are not fraught with danger. In his analysis, 57% of news sources supported the depression-holiday link in 2005, but only 9% did so in 2006. Hopefully, the newspapers will make a resolution this year to make that number drop even more. Better appreciation of the protective effect of the holidays should allow families and friends to celebrate without fear that they are contributing to depression.

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