Mental Illness and the Holidays


For those living with a mental disorder, the Holiday season can be very difficult and overwhelming. Celebration, socialization, eating, drinking, partying, cheerfulness, exchanging gifts and ‘making merry’ throughout the month of December, has become a tradition and also an expectation. Sadly, the holiday season is also a major catalyst for stress: budget, family issues, too many commitments, loneliness and isolation, loss of loved one, year-end reflection. Research shows that the consequences of the pressure to have ‘the perfect holiday’ leaves one in ten people feeling unable to cope. Twenty eight percent of teenagers and young adults feel stressed about the holidays because they do not feel comfortable talking with family/friends about their feelings.

Interestingly, the long-held notion that suicide increases over the holidays, is actually not true. In fact, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicides in the USA are at the lowest level in December, and peak in the spring and fall, the same is true for Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

Since childhood, I have struggled with Christmas and even though I am now in my fifties, to be honest, it really hasn’t changed. Living with depression and chronic suicidal ideation is challenging anytime of year but add in isolation and loneliness and the mere thought of the holiday season can be overwhelming and scary. Try as we might, we are bombarded with Christmas carols, Hallmark movies, trees, lights. Every time we turn on the television, advertisements, shows and movies portray images of the ‘perfect’ Christmas, the ‘perfect’ family. Unfortunately, this pressure to conform, to socialize and to be happy can actually destabilize those of us living with a mental illness and make us more vulnerable. According to Darlene Mininni* (2006), “the demands, pressures and expectations of the holidays can be felt more intensely by people with mental illness.”

So, how do I cope? I have learnt to plan ahead and treat the day as my special self-care day. I keep to a routine, I treat myself to special foods, I watch my favourite movies, I journal, I read a book, I express gratitude, I message friends, I go for a walk, I work on a jigsaw puzzle. I try to focus on the good things in my life and when the negative thoughts begin, I distract myself by writing, watching a funny comedy sketch (there are so many on Facebook and YouTube). Is it easy? No, it takes work, but every year it gets easier and less stressful and sad and now, I actually look forward to my extra special self-care day.

Some Helpful Suggestions

  • Be kind to yourself
  • Try not to isolate your self, this usually makes one feel worse.
  • Limit alcohol
  • Reduce expectations
  • Do not overschedule
  • Talk with a trusted friend, family member
  • Express your feelings in writing, art, music
  • Plan ahead, have the holiday celebration that works for you
  • Try not to overindulge on sweet, salty, fatty foods
  • Take medications as prescribed
  • Talk with doctor, psychiatrist, therapist – develop a plan to help deal with the festivities
  • Keep number of local on-call resource centre, Suicide hotline available
  • Maintain daily routine as best as possible
  • Begin your own holiday traditions
  • Self care – go for a walk, have a nap, watch your favourite movie, do a puzzle, have a bubble bath
  • Allow others to help e.g. host dinner, gift shop
  • Discuss plan for celebration days with partner, family, give yourself permission to take a time out
  • Express gratitude, list what is good in your life and what you are thankful for
  • Consider volunteering e.g. visiting a lonely senior, helping out at community event
  • Have a trusted friend, family member available to talk ‘anytime’
  • Get a good night’s sleep
  • Try to relax and laugh. Laughter truly is the best medicine. It combats fear, is comforting, promotes relaxation, reduces pain, boosts the immune system, reduces stress, cultivates optimism, helps communication and makes you feel good (Borchard, 2018).
  • Say no!

Most importantly, pause, take a breath, and remember, it is just one day! Be safe, be healthy, be you this holiday season. Do not let your mental illness define you, you are worthy, you are strong, you are loved.

*Darlene Mininni (2006). The Emotional Toolkit: how to cope with what life throws at you.

In my next Blog #27
I will discuss anxiety disorders in children and teenagers

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