Why suicide increases in September

In Ireland, suicide is a growing problem. If anything, as recent reports show, the number of deaths by suicide in Ireland may be far higher than official statistics would have us believe.

A new study, carried out by researchers at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), sheds some much needed light on the worrying phenomenon. This study, published in the journal Discover Mental Health, was unique in its findings. According to the researchers, suicides significantly increase at a number of different times – three, to be specific. The first spike occurs during the week of a full moon. The second, noted the researchers, occurs between the hours of 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.. The third occurs during the month of September, which is just a few days away.

The lead author of the study,  Alexander Niculescu, MD, PhD, commented: “From a clinical perspective and a public health perspective, we found some important take-home messages in this study. “High-risk patients,” he added, “should possibly be followed more closely the week of the full moon, during late afternoons and perhaps the month of September.” By “high-risk patients,” just to be clear, Dr. Niculescu simply means individuals who present a higher risk of mortality or morbidity than the average person. This could be an elderly individual, a pregnant woman, or someone with a chronic illness.

Previously, as the science writer Chris Melore reported, Dr. Niculescu and his team developed an advanced blood biomarker test “to detect mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD.” Interestingly, the researchers “discovered that victims of suicide had signs that their “internal clock” was not functioning right at the time of their death.”

In their latest study, the authors suggest that the extra light from a full moon could disrupt the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a region of the brain within the hypothalamus that is considered “the central pacemaker” of our circadian timing systems. The SCN plays a crucial role in regulating our circadian rhythms. For the uninitiated, circadian rhythms are 24-hour cycles that affect us mentally, physically and emotionally. Humans are “designed” to rise with the sun and wind down as daylight comes to an end. People who work night shifts, for example, are working against their circadian rhythms. They are very much swimming against the 24-hour tide. This possibly explains why night shift workers suffer a whole host of issues, from insomnia and disrupted sleep patterns to higher rates of obesity (than day shift workers). If day shift work is body clock-friendly, then night shift slogs, it seems, are the very opposite. In truth, compared to non-shirt work, any type of shift work appears to be detrimental to one’s mental health.

As for why suicide peaks between the hours of 3 and 4 p.m., the researchers believe that it could have something to do with the accumulation of stressors throughout the day. This is also the time when the dreaded “3 p.m. slump” hits, a period when people are likely to feel particularly sluggish. Interestingly, a 2017 study carried out by researchers at Swinburne University of Technology (SUT) in Melbourne found a connection between the slump and disruption to a specific region in the brain. According to the paper, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, between the hours of 3 and 4 p.m., the putamen, a large part of the forebrain that plays a role in reward processing, is expecting a reward of sorts — maybe a quick sugar rush in the form of dark chocolate or a sneaky muffin. Slumps, noted the authors, may occur because the putamen is expecting a reward around that time but never receives one. The putamen, it’s important to note, also plays a key role in regulating emotion.

As for why the rate of suicides increases in September, the authors suggest many people could be experiencing a sort of dysphoria as summer comes to an end — back to work, back to school, etc. Also,with daylight decreasing, this time of year is also intimately associated with the onset of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

As the writer Mary Hartnett previously discussed, SAD “is estimated to affect one in 15 people in Ireland.” Symptoms usually manifest at the beginning of September, when autumn begins in Ireland. “As autumn continues on into winter and sunlight decreases,” wrote Hartnett, “symptoms tend to get worse.”

The aforementioned Dr. Niculescu told me that suicide is an extremely complex phenomenon. The rise in suicides, he said, could and possibly should be attributed “to a combination of biological factors (circadian clock genes) and psycho-social factors (stress, loneliness, etc).”

When I asked about the full moon’s effect on our internal clock, the medical professional was quick to remind me that, “at night, everybody now has a full moon in their hand — their phone.”

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