Ask anyone (particularly in Michigan) when they believe the highest suicide rates are during the year, and we’d probably all say January or February. Those dark, dreary days where the sun blends in with the darkness, leaving a pale gray weariness dipped in sludgy ice puddles as we ache for the technicolor of spring.
However, we’d all be wrong.
Both national and international studies have shown that suicides are highest particularly in late April through May. And as we research more and more about anxiety and depression, we’re expanding our awareness of how our bodies and brains respond to the environment in the air we breathe, the places we inhabit, the foods we eat, and the relationships we cultivate. So what makes spring unique and devastating in our abilities to cope?
While there is a lot we don’t know, there are a number of theories as to why this time of year shakes us up more than most, and the most prominent theory points to increased inflammation, including allergies. That’s not to say that if you have strong allergies you will have suicidal thoughts, but merely that it makes you more susceptible to triggering or intensifying depression. In spring, instead of fighting all those winter colds, suddenly the body has to adapt and switch gears into protecting itself from allergens, which affect more than 50 million Americans each year. All those beautiful blooming flowers and fresh greens increase the chances of depression up to 40%, and can increase other physical symptoms when mixing certain anti-depressants with allergy medication (talk to your doctor if you have questions). In truth, various forms of inflammation and autoimmune diseases have long been linked to severe bouts of anxiety and depression.
Another theory is that with the fluctuating weather patterns of spring, our emotions swing just as wildly, so for every high there is an equal low. And for those who were already depressed from the winter season, spring increases energy and perhaps pushes them into action whereas before they were too lethargic. For others, they see the world excited to do more outside, while those who struggle only sink deeper into discouragement.
Whatever the reason, we share this information not to alarm, but to educate and perhaps normalize the more intense feelings you or someone you love may be having and hopefully start the conversation in a healthy way. All it takes is for someone to say, “I’ve been noticing some differences in you, and just wanted to check in to see how you’re doing…you’re not alone. I’m here.” Even if it’s just through FaceTime or Zoom right now, that can make such a difference in reminding someone they are still needed and wanted in this world.
Here are some symptoms to be looking out for:
- Behavior changes, increased use of alcohol/drugs
- Loss of interest
- Acting reckless/impulsive
- High Anxiety
- Aggression/increased irritability
- Changes in sleep (more or less)
- Phrases like, “I’m a burden to others”; “I wish I hadn’t been born”
- Giving away possessions
If you’re struggling with these thoughts, it can be a scary thing to talk to someone, so bring your fear along for the ride and simply say “Hi…I’m not doing okay”. We know it can be a challenge to find the words for how you’re feeling, but it doesn’t have to be perfect, just honest. What a profound act of faith and courage it is to speak the messy truth and be vulnerable with someone you trust about the hardest thing you’ve ever faced. Every week I am reminded that our clients are the bravest people out there, willing to be honest with themselves about their struggle. What a humbling privilege it is for us as counselors to be welcomed in to the conversation.
And if you are one of the few privileged to hear the heartaches of someone brave enough to speak, please don’t try and argue them out of it, preach about how wrong their thoughts or feelings are, or promise to keep it secret and then provide advice or a to-do list to make themselves feel better. More often than not, those responses will only create more shame, pushing them into deeper isolation. Just listen, love them through that moment, and walk with them towards a professional who can provide the care, hope, and skills they need to move through this season.
Above all, if you or someone you love is struggling with thoughts of suicide, don’t wait, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255), to speak to someone and learn about local resources. If someone shares they are thinking about ending their life, you can also take them to a doctor, local hospital emergency room or mental health professional, or call 911 to get the immediate help the person needs to stay safe. And, as always, there are many skilled counselors at Grand Rapids TherapyGroup who are available to meet with you, whether you are the one who is struggling, or you would like some help in knowing how to love others well through this time.
On a more personal note, this past weekend some friends shared their profound grief over someone they deeply cared about who ended their life last week and had no idea this friend was struggling. Suicide is devastating, and leaves a ripple effect that reverberates forever. So if you feel like you’re drowning and need a life preserver, keep fighting for air and let someone know. You are needed. You are so precious. Hang in there.