It seems logical that for a depressed person, the holidays might be especially tough—extra stress, loneliness and sad reminders of lost loved ones—so perhaps the popular belief that suicides spike around Christmastime is no surprise. Yet the data tell a different story. Recent studies from several countries show that rates in December and on Christmas in particular tend to be the lowest of the year, but other major holidays do see spikes, especially New Year's Day.

In one such study, suicide rates in England consistently dipped on Christmas and spiked on New Year's Day during the 15-year study period, according to the paper published in June in the Journal of Affective Disorders. The researchers reported an overall peak in springtime, and the highest daily rates were observed on Mondays. An older study reported a similar Christmas Day decline in the U.S., with rates up to 15 percent lower than average on that day.

Findings reported in 2015 in the European Journal of Public Health concur, showing about 25 percent fewer suicides around Christmastime in Austria. Rates there were particularly low on Christmas Eve and remained so until January 1, when the most suicides of any day of the year occurred. The authors also observed higher rates on Mondays and Tuesdays, as well as during the week after Easter.

There are exceptions to this trend. Australia and Mexico do see slightly elevated rates on both Christmas Day and New Year's Day (as well as on Mother's Day and Mexican Independence Day). But most nations follow the myth-busting pattern: suicide rates are lower than average around Christmas.

According to clinical psychologist Martin Plöderl, a co-author of the Austrian study at Paracelsus Medical University in Salzburg, there is typically more social connection for many people around Christmas, which is an established protective factor for suicide. Psychiatric hospital admissions also decrease during this period.

Credit: Brian Stauffer

So why the spike on New Year's? Researchers suggest “the broken promise effect” may explain it—along with the increases after Easter and weekends. “Many of us are familiar with the feeling after holidays: ‘Was that it? I expected more fun, more relaxation, and tomorrow I have to go back to everyday life!’” Plöderl says. “For depressed people, the broken promise of Christmas and the blank year lying ahead may increase hopelessness and thus suicide risk.” The greater alcohol consumption that takes place on New Year's Eve and Day may also play a role in lowering inhibitions, and “some people may postpone their planned suicide so that their families and friends can enjoy Christmas,” he explains.

Although these findings cannot speak to any particular individual's suicide risk, they have important implications for public policy and medical practitioners. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions on its Web site that perpetuating the Christmas suicide myth could hurt prevention and public awareness efforts. In addition, this misperception, Plöderl says, “may translate to less optimal discharge planning [from psychiatric care].” It might be fine for some depressed patients to be home for the holidays, but as New Year's approaches, “it would be good to offer more support.”