The idea that the holidays are a source for angst is well cemented in our culture, with a reliable stream of articles telling us how to survive “the Christmas blues” or “the winter blahs.” Stretched finances, shortening days, busy schedules, and seeing family are common sources of stress.
“Hauling out discussions of the Christmas depression syndrome has become, in the United States, an annual Christmas custom somewhat like hauling out the decorations, singing carols, and putting on Santa Claus suits,” Drs. James Randolph Hillard and John Buckman, both psychiatrists, say in a 1982 JAMA article.
Psychology papers mostly confirm the idea of Christmas blues.
(Some of these articles are truly of another era, such as “Negative Reactions to Christmas,” a 1941 paper by psychiatrist Dr. Jule Eisenbud, which describes two female patients who around Christmas had “an intense wish for a penis and the forlorn hope that Santa Claus would magically provide one.”)
Yet studies of large populations have consistently shown no spike in signs of depression during the Christmas season.
Suicide rates, hospitalization for psychiatric problems, calls to mental health hotlines, and even letters to advice columns are actually lower than expected in the lead-up to the holidays and on Christmas, according to a 1981 article published in the Archives of General Psychiatry (now JAMA Psychiatry) that reviewed the literature.
What researchers have found is that suicides spike on New Year’s Day and the following two or three days, after the festivities have ended.
A 2008 study of nearly 134,000 people in Hungary found over a 32-year period more suicides were committed on New Year’s Day than average. And a 1999 study of about 25,000 people in several European nations reported fewer suicide attempts than expected before Christmas, but nearly 40 percent more after Christmas over a seven-year period.
“Belief in the Christmas depression syndrome… gives people permission not to feel euphoric throughout the season, the way that other Christmas customs suggest they are supposed to feel.”
Only New Year’s Day, July 4th, and Labor Day are associated with a high risk of suicide, according to a U.S. study from 1997. Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, on the other hand, are associated with an “unusually low” risk of suicide before, during, and after that particular holiday.
Other studies have shown suicide rates are no higher than average in December, January or winter in general, contrary to an expected uptick because of the lack of daylight. Interestingly, many of these studies find that suicide rates peak in the early spring.
So why, in spite of all of this research, are the Christmas blues such a popular idea?
“Belief in the Christmas depression syndrome… gives people permission not to feel euphoric throughout the season, the way that other Christmas customs suggest they are supposed to feel,” suggest Drs. Hillard and Buck.
There are various theories for why people are more likely to commit suicide at certain times of year.
French sociologist Dr. Emile Durkheim in his 1897 book Suicide argued that the rise in suicides in the early spring went along with the general increase in activity encouraged by the warmer weather.
Statistician Dr. Louis Dublin attributed the spring suicide peak to “the painful contrast between the suicide’s own despair and the resurgence of life about him,” in his 1963 book Suicide: A Sociological and Statistical Study.
But neither Dr. Durkheim nor Dr. Dublin’s theory could explain why suicide spikes in early spring and in the New Year.
Dr. Howard Gabennesch, a sociologist at the University of Southern Indiana, put forward such a theory in a 1988 article.
“The spring, weekends, and holidays are examples of affectively positive events with the potential to promise more than they deliver,” he said:
If an impending event subtly heightens expectations or aspirations without actually producing real and lasting improvement in the suicidal person’s condition, then his/her mood does not necessarily return to its original level but rather to a lower one, due to a more acute sense of relative depravation. It is as if a promise had been broken.
Referring to this as the “broken promise effect,” Dr. Gabennesch said that New Year’s is an especially difficult time, because it:
provides (a) the implicit promise of a new beginning, (b) a spirit of collective optimism and revelry to contrast with one’s personal unhappiness, and (c) the length of time available for some suicidal persons to arrive at the conclusion that promises are not being kept.
This can be an especially hard come down for people who build up expectations that their lot will improve because of the holidays or who try to begin resolutions that involve dramatic behavior changes, such as giving up drinking, or exercising frequently.
The truth is “a great deal of the time, May does not yield more than December did, and next week or month will closely resemble the last,” wrote Dr. Gabennesch.
The broken promise theory also explains why suicides spike on Mondays, which has been documented again and again by studies in Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Lithuania, the United States, and Hungary, especially in men.
“The beginning of the week follows an end (Saturday and Sunday) which, like a holiday, has positive connotations for most people. Thus, an initial contrast effect can occur during the weekend, as Saturday and Sunday fail the suicidal individual,” says Dr. Gabennesch.
Asked about how his theory holds up today, Dr. Gabennesch, who admits he has since turned his research focus to other subjects, said: “Perhaps a fair summary of the past 25 years would be that, while broken promise theory remains speculative, apparently no one has come up with a more persuasive alternative. I still believe it captures at least a piece of the truth.”
Admittedly the research into depression and the holidays is limited by the fact that there are few recent studies that consider signs of distress other than suicide, such as hospital admissions, seeing a therapist for the first time, or calls to mental health hotlines.
Furthermore, even if Christmas is easier than other times of year, it can still be a difficult holiday for people who have traumatic memories associated to family and that time of year.
Meanwhile, for those dealing with the New Year pain, psychologists recommend not to expect too much of yourself right away, advising realistic resolutions and moderate changes.
As the writer Patricia Volk said: “Once you bring expectations to something, how can it live up to them?”
If you are having suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
If you need help finding a therapist, this is a good resource.
Edited by Joshua Brooks