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November 27, 2019 · OPINION

The holidays often intensify mental health challenges

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Advice for “holiday blues” and/or Seasonal Affective Disorder: “Practice self-care. Do things that help restore your mind and body. Set boundaries with others and realistic expectations. Seek professional help through counseling or psychiatry.”
By Shannon Raybuck
Fauquier Free Clinic

For many people, the holiday season is a happy time spent with loved ones and filled with exciting festivities. Yet, for some it is a time that worsens stress, anxiety and even depression.

There are several factors at play which may trigger these “holiday blues” as well as cause an exacerbation of current mental health concerns, which include: High/unrealistic expectations, financial stress, feeling overwhelmed, separation from family, personal grief, loneliness and fewer hours of sunlight.

Furthermore, some people also experience a type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), most commonly seen in the fall/winter months. The symptoms of SAD include, but are not limited to: Low energy, sleeping more than usual, overeating (especially craving carbohydrates), weight gain, social withdrawal, feelings of sadness and, for some, thoughts of suicide.

There is a difference between the “holiday blues” (where symptoms begin at the start of the holiday season and end shortly after the holidays are over) and a diagnosable mental illness where symptoms are present before and continue to be present after the holidays end and are negatively impacting an individual’s ability to function and be successful. However, all mental health symptoms regardless of onset or length should be taken seriously.

The seasonality of mental illness experienced with SAD is not its own diagnosis/disorder, but rather, it is regarded as a type of depression with notable seasonal patterns. For those who experience these types of challenges, it is important to learn ways to manage their mental health.

Practice self-care. Do things that help restore your mind and body. Set boundaries with others and realistic expectations. Seek professional help through counseling or psychiatry. Engage in peer support groups (for example with your local NAMI chapter, the 12-step community or other faith-based communities). Be careful not to overindulge in alcohol or illicit substances, as this often makes symptoms worse. Exercise, eat a balanced diet and get enough sleep. Reach out to others (friends and family) and try not to isolate yourself. Make new traditions. Volunteer with a local non-profit that helps others.

For those who aren’t experiencing mental health challenges, why does this matter to you? You may be thinking the topic of mental health is not pertinent to your life. However, it is very likely that people you encounter are being affected by a mental illness. In fact, according to Mental Health America and The National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly 1 in 5 American adults will have a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year.

For that reason, it is important to raise awareness about mental illness and educate people on how they can better manage their mental health as well as support others who are facing adversity with their well-being.

If you know someone struggling, reach out! Be present with the individual, be a safe space for the individual, while letting them know you are coming from a place of caring, not judgment. Often it is not about giving advice, but allowing the individual to share (or not share) his or her thoughts and feelings with someone they trust. Offer specific plans (“I would like to bring you dinner tomorrow, how does that sound?”), rather than vague ones (“Do you want me to come over sometime?”). Ask the individual, “What do you need?” or “How can I help?” Don’t be afraid to ask the individual if he or she is suicidal, and if the answer is “yes,” help that person get to the nearest emergency room or call 911. Ask if he or she is open to help to manage how they are feeling and discuss possible options. Educate yourself through Mental Health First Aid training.

Keep the conversation open about mental health. Learn how you can play your part in changing the negative attitudes and misconceptions associated with mental illness. Be aware of stigmatizing language (the “schizophrenic” or “addict” versus person first language such as “the individual diagnosed with schizophrenia or with a substance use disorder”). Stop casually using mental health diagnoses as adjectives (such as saying the weather is “bi-polar”). Avoid labeling someone or his/her actions as “crazy” or “psycho.”

Stand up and confront others when you hear them using this language. Shift thinking and perception from “What is wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” Let’s work together to spread understanding, education and acceptance of mental health disorders and substance use disorders as genuine medical conditions, and not a defect of character.

If you have thoughts of suicide, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

A licensed professional counselor, the writer serves as the mental health care coordinator at the Fauquier Free Clinic.
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