According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug- and alcohol-related deaths surge each year in December, January and March. Since 1999, there have been approximately 91,000 deaths reported for December alone. The CDC National Center for Health Statistics also notes an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. between April 2020 and April 2021. The number of fatalities indicates an increase of 28.5 percent from the year before.

But what causes this spike in overdose deaths?

The Harsh Reality of the Holiday Months

December immediately brings thoughts of Christmas to mind; we think about the festive lights, social gatherings, shopping, gift exchanges and a break from school and work. However, these feelings of merriment and positivity don’t apply to everyone. For many, the holidays can be a dark and troubling time filled with increased loneliness, depression and anxiety. These negative emotions can lead to isolation, family conflicts and harmful behavior.

Increased Alcohol Consumption

There is also a strong link between dangerous drinking, such as binge drinking, and the holiday season. In a report issued by Alcohol Monitoring Systems, 450,000 monitored DUI offenders increased their drinking rates by 33 percent during the holidays. Survey data also reveals that many people admit increasing their alcohol consumption over the holidays, presumably because of increased social gatherings. However, another reason people raise their alcohol intake over these months could be a coping mechanism for the holiday blues.

Holiday Depression and Anxiety

Depression and anxiety can take hold during the deadliest months due to the pressures of conforming to conventional holiday behavior and may be extended by seasonal affective disorder as so many struggle with the long, dark winter. Unfortunately, not everyone has happy families to celebrate with; they may also be in a dire financial situation. With overwhelming feelings of depression and anxiety, people may turn to alcohol and drugs to help them cope. An increase in substance use may lead to abuse and, ultimately, overdose.

The Health Resources and Services Administration has found a clear association between depression and increased rates of opioid deaths. Laura Schwab-Reese, a Purdue University researcher, says, “for every additional percentage of the population that reported depression, there was a 26 percent increase in the number of opioid overdose deaths.”

If you or someone you know has a mental health or substance use emergency, please call 911, go to your nearest emergency room, or call 1-866-837-7521 to connect to Communicare’s mobile crisis team, 24 hours a weekday, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We’re also here to help you with prevention and recovery services.