CHRISTMAS CELEBRATIONS: Stress, Suicide and Spending Time with the Family ; If Our Duty to Our Families Has Become Such a Burden, Then the Family Really Is in Mortal Peril

By Persaud, Raj | The Independent (London, England), December 24, 2004 | Go to article overview
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CHRISTMAS CELEBRATIONS: Stress, Suicide and Spending Time with the Family ; If Our Duty to Our Families Has Become Such a Burden, Then the Family Really Is in Mortal Peril


Persaud, Raj, The Independent (London, England)


There is a saying in professional psychology circles that whenever you hear people talking a lot about the "community", that a sure sign that there isn't any. It is precisely because there is no community that we become preoccupied with it, and keep searching for it.

At this time of year it's easy to feel the same way about the "family" - as this is the institution that is supposed to be at the heart of Christmas, and with whom we unite around the Christmas tree. Indeed family therapists have even recently argued that maybe in an increasingly secular world, the whole point of Christmas is actually a renewal of the institution of family.

In today's world of the the single person household, single parents, spiralling divorce rates, surrogates, test-tube babies, gay marriage, step-parents and step-siblings, one definition of the family in these confusing times is, simply, who you spend Christmas with. But if those are people you don't see properly for the rest of the year - possibly because you can't stand them - does the stress of suddenly enforced family life explain the intriguing rise in suicide rates found just after Christmas?

Dr Vladeta Ajdacic-Gross of the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine, at the University of Zurich, has just published the very latest European data on suicide rates around Christmas. He found that suicide rates decline precipitously in the last few days before Christmas Day - for example Christmas Eve has the lowest suicide rate for any day in the whole year. Yet after Christmas, suicide rates climb rapidly, so that by early January they significantly exceed the average for the year.

The psychological theory that attempts to explain this is termed the Broken Promise Effect - the idea is that on Christmas Eve we look forward to the promise of Christmas with optimistic expectations, accounting for why it's the day with the lowest suicide rate of the year. We will get great presents and our families will come together and be unified, supportive and peaceful - or so we hope.

Yet the reality of Christmas deviates from our high expectations, the in-laws are demanding and break their presents, while the drunken teenagers throw up in the mulled wine. So the "promise" of Christmas is rapidly extinguished, and we are plunged into despair, so greeting the New Year with the resolve to die, never to go through all that again.

But even those who find the demands of Christmas merely annoying will be interested in the findings of psychologist Dr Barbara Fiese at Syracuse University in New York State. Dr Fiese conducted a comprehensive review of some 32 studies over the past 50 years investigating such rituals of family life as Christmas to determine whether they are, on balance, good for families. These seasonal family rituals, after all, involve considerable time and often elicit conflicts.

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CHRISTMAS CELEBRATIONS: Stress, Suicide and Spending Time with the Family ; If Our Duty to Our Families Has Become Such a Burden, Then the Family Really Is in Mortal Peril
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