It’s not the reds and greens of Christmas that we need to be concerned about, according to popular wisdom--it’s the blues. Along with gift ideas and recipes for sugar cookies, it has become a tradition for newspapers and magazines to carry ominous warnings about holiday depression.
The only trouble with such claims is that there is no good data to support them. “There is no evidence at all that people become more clinically depressed during the holidays,” said Rochelle Semmel Albin, a Boston-area psychologist who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the topic. “It’s not a public health problem--it’s a media invention.”
“Some people probably do get overwhelmed,” she said, “but they may also get overwhelmed by their birthdays and summer vacations. For some people, rain is depressing.”
Depression goes beyond simply feeling sad. It may also include feeling helpless, hopeless and irritable, a change in appetite and sleeping patterns, loss of interest and energy, feelings of guilt or worthlessness and recurring thoughts of death or suicide.
No one has any difficulty spinning out reasons why people might become depressed during the holidays. Idealized visions of family togetherness clash with an imperfect reality. Pleasant memories remind us of what--and who--is no longer around. The pressure to be joyous can seem stifling. Financial pressures mount.
But researchers report that the premise of these theories seems to be mistaken. In the case of suicide, to begin with, the evidence is absolutely clear. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics indicates that April, not December, is the cruelest month. Daily suicide reports, as reviewed by many statisticians, show that suicides peak in the spring and drop in December and January.
Even if we look at all the major holidays throughout the year, it turns out that none is associated with an increase in the suicide rate. In fact, regardless of sex, race, or method of doing oneself in, there are significantly fewer suicides on most holidays than on other days.
Do more people wind up in psychiatric hospitals at certain times of the year? Some studies say that admissions peak in the summer, some say in the fall, and some say there’s no seasonal pattern. But virtually none finds a flurry of activity late in the year.
In 1981, psychiatrist James Hillard and his colleagues reviewed records of visits to a psychiatric emergency room in Durham, N.C., over seven years. “The Christmas season, particularly December, is a time of low utilization of our psychiatric facility,” they concluded, echoing other researchers’ findings.
Five years later, another set of investigators looked at the prescriptions for antidepressant medications written in England over a two-year period. Male patients received slightly more drugs in early June and early December; for women, there was no pattern.
Researchers have, over the last decade, begun to identify people who regularly become depressed each winter--as well as another group, seldom reported in the popular press, whose mood drops every summer. Some specialists believe the reduction in daylight is responsible for winter depression, particularly since artificial bright light often eases their depression.
Overall, said John Buckman, professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia Medical Center, “there is more depression during the winter than during the other parts of the year, but I don’t think you can lay that on the doorstep of Christmas.”
Whether more people feel slightly unhappier during the holidays than at other times--a drop in mood that would not show up on measures of serious depression--remains an open question. “The most that can be said about the Christmas blues is: not proven,” Albin said.
As for real depression, “no measure of psychopathology in general, or of depression in particular, has ever shown a consistent increase before Christmas,” Hillard and Buckman have written. “The Christmas season tends to be a time of psychological stress but not of the psychological failure to cope.”
Kohn, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., has most recently written “You Know What They Say ...: The Truth About Popular Beliefs” (HarperCollins).