Every year, the holidays kick off with Thanksgiving and end on New Year's Day. Many people look forward to the season with anticipation. Although for many, the holidays can be fun; for others, it can be anything but festive. The season may trigger an onslaught of the blues, suicidal thoughts or actions.
Michael Ferdinand was 15 when he and his two older sisters migrated to New York from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago in 1977. They arrived just before the holidays to join their mother whom they hadn't seen since 1971. Ferdinand had a difficult time not only adjusting to new surroundings, but also leaving behind the warmth of the Caribbean.
"It was the usual – new environment, missing friends and family," said Ferdinand, 50, the youngest of 10 children. He missed his oldest sister who cared for them while their mother worked. "I didn't want to leave T&T, and Ma was angry. I was very sad."
"My depression was far worse and lasted way longer," than any other time, said Ferdinand, a father of two in Kirkland, Wash. He admitted to being depressed during his deployment with Operation Desert Storm in 1991, but the depression from moving to the United States was worse.
"I had to talk to two shrinks," said Ferdinand who liked skipping across train tracks, which forced his mother to take him to a psychiatrist. "I'm still here. I'd say they helped a lot."
Depression in children is frequently overlooked, said Vanesta Poitier, Ph.D, a social worker at the Stoddard Baptist Nursing Home in Northwest.
"It's confused with other illnesses, misbehavior or malnutrition," said Poitier, 60, who has helped youth to the elderly. "During the holidays, everyone gets the blues for a time," especially when you're away from home like Ferdinand. But these feelings are short lived and pass within a couple of days.
Depression, said Virginia-based psychiatrist, Dr. Robin Brannigan, is a term to convey a variety of dysphoric mood states.
"Most folks will use the term to describe feeling blue for brief periods but from a medical perspective, depression refers to an ongoing period of sadness – typically longer than two weeks – and associated with specific symptoms," said Brannigan, 47. "When there's sadness and loss of interest plus three or four other symptoms for more than two weeks, an individual is considered majorly depressed."
Symptoms include loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed, decrease in motivation, changes in appetite and sleep, feelings of unwarranted guilt, excessive worry, suicidal thoughts and actions.
Other symptoms for the elderly, said Poitier, a relative of internationally known actor Sidney Poitier, include irritable mood swings, expressions of worthlessness, weight loss, not caring for themselves, always tired, irresponsible behaviors, "doing things outside the norm for this person," persistent sadness and emptiness, and persistent physical symptoms and chronic pain that don't respond to treatments.
The National Mental Health Association theorized that the reasons for feeling blue around the holidays are numerous. They range from fatigue – a result of the increased holiday activity – to financial limitations and family tensions. Experts say the fastest route to holiday depression is unrealistic expectations. People may develop other stress responses such as headaches, excessive drinking, overeating and difficulty sleeping. Then, they experience a post-holiday let down after Jan. 1.
"There are numerous triggers for the onset of depressive episodes," Brannigan said. "Disturbing experiences like loss and death, genetic predisposition, and seasonal changes. Although it may seem that the holidays can be a trigger for depression, it's not always the case. More often than not, it exacerbates an already underlying vulnerability."
Ways of coping with stress during the holidays, advised the D.C. Commission on Aging, a citizen's advisory group, include keeping expectations manageable, pacing yourself and organizing your time. Make a list and prioritize important activities. Be realistic about what you can do. Don't put the entire focus on one day. It's a season of holiday sentiment, and activities can be spread out to lessen stress and increase enjoyment.
Poitier added that families become busy celebrating and they leave out certain members such as the elderly.
"They don't feel included in the festivities," said Poitier, "and the key is to include them in the process of what you're doing. Even simple things like shopping trips; you can include them so they'll feel a part of it."
Brannigan was more straightforward.
"My advice for anyone experiencing depressive symptoms for an extensive period of time, greater than two weeks, is to seek help," Brannigan added. "There's no need to suffer in silence, nor deny yourself assistance or relief."