The holiday blues: Fact or fiction?

Dec. 19, 2023 / By Steve Delaronde

The period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is known as the “holiday season” in the United States. It represents a time that families traditionally gather to celebrate secular and religious holidays. It also marks the end of autumn and beginning of winter, also known as the winter solstice, when the northern hemisphere experiences the least amount of daylight. Disrupted routines, family stress, financial strains, end-of-year deadlines, unrealistic expectations and limited daylight are all thought to contribute to the “holiday blues.” Does the evidence support this?

According to the American Psychiatry Association, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a diagnosable condition that is experienced by about five percent of the U.S. population and can last 40 percent of the year. It is more common in those that live far from the equator and is most likely to occur in the winter months of January and February in the northern hemisphere. While it is classified as a “major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern,” it is treatable and is linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and not the stress associated with the holiday season.

A more serious mental health issue is suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of deaths by suicide in the U.S. peaked in 2022. Those groups with disproportionately high rates include males, non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska natives and non-Hispanic whites, and people ages 85 and older. However, suicide deaths are more common in late spring and early summer months than in the winter. One theory is that inflammation and allergic reactions can cause or worsen depression. Regardless of the cause, the data debunks the perception that suicides are more common during the holiday season.

Exposing the myth of the holiday blues may help North Americans feel better about the holiday season, however, mental health remains an ongoing concern. While there are attempts to identify depression and suicide risk among older adults during medical visits, one study reports that young adults ages 18-25 have a higher prevalence of any psychiatric disorder than other age groups, but a lower prevalence of treatment use. Additionally, teen girls are experiencing record levels of sadness and suicide risk according to the CDC, with more than half reporting that they persistently feel sad or hopeless and 30 percent having seriously considered a suicide attempt.

Addressing mental health issues requires a multi-faceted effort across schools, communities, workplaces, health systems, insurers and government. Improvements in the awareness, identification, treatment access, treatment availability, funding and research of mental health issues must be a priority. The ongoing effort to treat mental health as urgently as other medical issues must continue with proposed updates to the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. A commitment to addressing the current mental health crisis can be demonstrated with an increase in the resources needed for prevention and treatment.

Steve Delaronde is senior manager of product, population and payment solutions at 3M Health Information Systems.