It’s conventional wisdom: Depression and suicide rise among the young and old during the Christmas holidays. The question is whether it’s true.
Research over the years shows that the suicide rate not only doesn’t spike at holiday time but is the lowest at any other time during the year. A 2014 report by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center said:
Year after year, the suicide rate is at its lowest in the United States during the holiday season, but nearly three-quarters of U.S. newspaper stories linking suicide and the holidays during the 2013-2014 season incorrectly said the opposite, according to a new analysis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website:
The idea that suicides occur more frequently during the holiday season is a long perpetuated myth. … CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reports that the suicide rate is, in fact, the lowest in December. The rate peaks in the spring and the fall. This pattern has not changed in recent years. The holiday suicide myth supports misinformation about suicide that might ultimately hamper prevention efforts.
It is also commonly said that depression rates in the United States rise around the Christmas holidays. There seems to be more evidence of this, although how much of it is actually linked to the holidays is unclear. The National Institutes of Health published a piece on the subject in 2013 that says in part:
As the days get shorter, many people find themselves feeling sad. You might feel blue around the winter holidays, or get into a slump after the fun and festivities have ended. Some people have more serious mood changes year after year, lasting throughout the fall and winter when there’s less natural sunlight. What is it about the darkening days that can leave us down in the dumps? And what can we do about it?
NIH-funded researchers have been studying the “winter blues” and a more severe type of depression called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, for more than 3 decades. They’ve learned about possible causes and found treatments that seem to help most people. Still, much remains unknown about these winter-related shifts in mood.
“Winter blues is a general term, not a medical diagnosis. It’s fairly common, and it’s more mild than serious. It usually clears up on its own in a fairly short amount of time,” says Dr. Matthew Rudorfer, a mental health expert at NIH. The so-called winter blues are often linked to something specific, such as stressful holidays or reminders of absent loved ones.
It is, however, undeniably true that for many young people, especially those who see their schools are safe havens and the source of most of their food, the holidays can be especially stressful. Furthermore, this stress affects kids in a way that is different from adults.
Here to explain is Lori Russell-Chapin, a professor of education and an award-winning teacher and researcher at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. She was the chair of the Department of Leadership in Education, Human Services and Counseling for 12 years, and is now the associate dean of the College of Education and Health Sciences and co-director for the Center for Collaborative Brain Research. She has written and co-written six books. Russell-Chapin also has written extensively on supervision issues, clinical supervision, neurofeedback, epigenetics and brain-based counseling interventions.
Q. Holidays can be emotionally rough on young people and adults. Can you explain why?
A. The holidays create memories of Christmas past. If those reflections are beautifully filled with expectations of happy families, love and hope, and if this Christmas does not match those beliefs, melancholy fills the air. If the past holidays were cluttered with memories of chaos and despair, then the present holidays are looked upon with distrust and even dread.
Q. Does this affect young people in a different way than older ones?
A. Holidays do affect young people differently than older people. Of course, maturation of the brain and consistent trauma may create some of those differences. Many researchers believe that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until our late 20s and even into the early 30s. It is the prefrontal cortex that assists in executive decision-making. Often with poor decision-making, we say to our young adolescents and even young adults, “What were you thinking?” If the brain has not fully matured, then they were not thinking much of anything!
They were reacting, not responding, from the amygdala that often increases in size with continued emotional and physiological trauma. Instead of communicating and responding from the prefrontal cortex, young folks are reacting from the amygdala. This might even result in riskier behaviors. Often with trauma there is dysregulation of brainwaves. Depression and anxiety become more prevalent. Then throw in the holidays, and we may have an unfortunate recipe for disaster.
Q. For many kids, school is a safe haven. They get emotional support and food there. Can you speak to the issues that confront these kids over the holidays?
A. Not only do our schools provide emotional support and food, but schools provide the much needed structure that every human being needs to function in a healthy manner. When the holidays arrive, that structure vanishes. It seems we all enjoy this lack of structure for a small amount of time, but in reality we need to create structure even within the chaos of holidays. Going back to the first question, “nestled” in our heads are not only thoughts of gingerbread cookies and beautifully decorated holiday homes, but we have created unrealistic expectations of what we want this holiday to be.
We all put additional stressors on us and our children. Often these expectations are not even true. We know that our memories of past events may not be quite accurate due to the pruning away of neurons in the brain to make room for new real estate and memories. Since we are not able to change the past, our brains give us the ability to change our perceptions of the past. So what can each of us do to make the holidays more peaceful?
Here are some steps from Russell-Chapin for creating new memories that offer a healthier and more realistic holiday.
1. Be sure to create structure on a daily basis within the often relaxed pace of the holidays.
2. Have your children and everyone still go to bed and get up at a decent and consistent time every day.
3. Limit the amount of sweets and sugars. Instead of three sugar cookies, have only one.
4. Ensure that everyone is exercising on a daily basis. You don’t have to go to the gym, just bundle up and go outside for some outdoor life.
5. If you can’t buy every present you want, write a personalized note instead.
6. Have the entire family volunteer doing something that is not about buying presents. Shovel someone’s walk. Deliver food to shut-ins.
7. Have fun that doesn’t cost money.
8. Honor those family members who have passed away, whether the memories are happy or not. Make their favorite dish. Put out a decoration that reminds you of that person.
9. As an adult, limit the amount of alcohol and medications consumed on a daily basis.
10. Call a friend for support. Go somewhere that offers emotional and social support.
11. Limit the amount of screen time.
12. Take “timeouts” for everyone when life gets too much.
13. Have quiet time every day. Meditate. Do yoga.
14. Count your blessings every day, even if you can find only one reason for gratitude. Research shows that grateful people live longer!