Winter holidays are supposed to be times full of sugar, spice, and everything nice, but even the most Christmas-cheerful among us have to admit that the reality doesn’t always meet these expectations. On the contrary, the expectation of “a great time” or even “the perfect holiday” tends to bring about a lot of stress and anxiety (just think about the last time you went gift-hunting right before Christmas), as well as depressive symptoms (for example, due to not being able to be around your loved ones). Grounded in these observations, urban legend has it that holidays lead to an increase in mental disorders. More specifically, countless newspaper stories about increases in suicide are thrown at us every year, in an attempt to warn us about the impending doom that the horrifying monster of Christmas is about to rain down on us (of course, in addition to all the other impending doom that constantly threatens our meek existence; because if you’re not scaring your audience, you’re not doing it right). But, coming back, just because a belief is popular, it doesn’t automatically make it true, so in this post we’re asking ourselves: is that really true?
In order to answer this question, studies have focused mainly on three topics: substance abuse, mood disorders, and, finally, self-harm and suicidal behaviour. So let’s look at each of them separately.
Several studies have reported that, during the holiday period, there is an increase in the number of deaths caused by alcohol poisoning. However, although one reason for this observed increase could be that people are indeed self-medicating with alcohol because holidays make them depressed, there are other potential explanations, which are at least equally plausible. People drink more during festive events because this is a time for relaxation, when they don’t have to worry about the next day’s hangover and they can just let loose. They also tend to consume more alcohol because that’s what others around them are doing. And of course, some need that one (or ten) extra shots just to be able to get through the never-ending annual interrogatory regarding their life plans (or lack thereof).
At the same time, the same studies have also confirmed that people do tend to report lower moods, decreased life satisfaction, as well as decreased emotional well-being. In other words, it’s true that people tend to feel lousier around Christmas and that these feelings can cause higher depression rates during the holiday season. Based on participants’ reports, these feelings seem to be caused by the belief that others are having a better time.
Self-harm and suicide
But here’s the kicker: self-harm and suicide attempts are actually lower during the Christmas period compared to the rest of the year (although, unfortunately, they tend to spike afterwards). Moreover, there are fewer patients who require admission into the psychiatric emergency services over the holidays, so, in that sense, Christmas seems to have sort of a protective effect against psychiatric pathology.
To sum up, winter holidays do lead to extra alcohol consumption (not a shocker) and more deaths due to alcohol poisoning, as well as an increase in mood disorders. However, the number of suicides, as well as the number of people requiring hospitalization in psychiatric facilities is actually decreasing during Christmas.
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