The holidays are nearly history with only memories lingering. The Christmas tree is down, presents are stashed away and visiting family and friends are gone.
Mental health officials said while for many people those memories are joyful, for others they can trigger depression and suicidal thoughts.
Oftentimes, it is the period after the holidays that tends to see spikes in the numbers of people taking their lives. Mental health professionals said there is a misperception that the stress of the holidays leads people to take their lives more so than at other times of the year.
Jeff Dismukes, director of communications for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, said while many people experience a heightened level of stress and anxiety during this time of year, the feeling often referred to as the “holiday blues” does not usually result in more people taking their lives than at other periods.
“Actually, it’s often after the holidays that we’ll see spikes in suicides,” Dismukes said. “That’s the time when the bills come due, and the family that has been around and closer during the holidays is gone.”
Melissa Shofner, clinical director at Green Country Behavioral Health of Muskogee and McIntosh counties, said statistics on types of deaths indicates the higher times of year for suicides are in the spring and fall. A lot of times the media tends to focus on the stress of the holidays and ties that to people taking their lives, she said.
“That being said, anything that sheds light on the topic and helps makes loved ones more aware of what to look for is good,” she said.
Dismukes provided data from the state indicating Oklahoma ranks seventh nationally in terms of its suicide rate. From 2012 to 2016, suicide was the leading type of violent death in Oklahoma, accounting for an average of 743 deaths a year.
State records indicate that between 2010 and 2016, there were 94 suicides in Muskogee County. For 2016, there were 18 suicides in the county, a number that has increased slightly in recent years.
In 2015, Muskogee County had 17 suicides; in 2014 there were 15; in 2013 the county had 12; and in 2012 there were 11 suicides reported in the county, records indicate.
Wagoner County had 99 deaths attributed to suicide between 2010 and 2016. Cherokee County had 75 suicide deaths for that seven-year period, while McIntosh County had at least 21 suicide deaths, although in years where there were fewer than five suicide deaths the health department did not tally a specific number.
State statistics indicate the suicide rate among Oklahoma Native Americans was three times higher than other ethnic groups like Asians and blacks and slightly higher than whites. A U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs report found that Oklahoma had the highest suicide rate among young veterans aged 18-34 in 2014.
Shofner encouraged area residents to be aware of family members and neighbors who may become isolated and removed. Those can be signs of depression, she said.
Mental health issues, intimate partner problems, depressed mood and physical health problems were the most common circumstances leading to suicide, according to National Vital Statistics Systems mortality data.
“We encourage people to be kind to others and help take care of one another,” Shofner said. “Depression is worse for people who are alone.”
Shofner also suggested people follow general healthy guidelines that often easily fall by the wayside during the busy holiday time.
“Take care of basic things like watching what you eat, get exercise and get rest,” she said.
Those can all help relieve stress.
When people who are alone see others all around them appearing to be happy, it can help contribute to a deepening depression, Shofner said. For a growing senior population, the tendency to become depressed may often be more prevalent due to health issues and being alone, she said.
“And don’t ever count out kids that are young, sometimes less than 13 years old, for being impacted,” she said.
Watch for signs they may be depressed or even be suicidal.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, National Vital Statistics System data indicates.
“Sometimes it’s the words not said that may serve as an indicator there’s a problem,” Shofner said. “All too often with kids, people will say they are doing things just to get attention. That’s not always the case.”
She recommended getting in touch with health care professionals when signs of depression or suicide surface. Mood changes, recklessness, anger issues, withdrawal, anxiety, a loss of hope and substance abuse are among warning signs.
Although multiple factors contribute to suicide, at least 90 percent of all people who kill themselves have a mental disorder, a substance abuse disorder or a combination of disorders, said the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health.