Mental Illness Concerns Arrive with Holidays

Health Officials Warn of Depression, Anxiety

HEALTH_-_MENTAL_HEALTH_t750x550

by Stacy M. Brown
Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer

The holiday season often arrives with high expectations for many who anticipate visits from family and friends and the precious gifts they’ll remember and cherish at least until next Christmas.

But, for the approximately 28,000 District adults and children living with serious mental illness and the millions of others around the country, their conditions might be severely tested because of the anxiety and even the depression that the season can bring.

“For many people the holiday season is not always the most wonderful time of the year,” said Ken Duckworth, medical director for the Fairfax, Virginia-based National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.

“What [our recent] survey shows is a tremendous need for people to reach out and watch out for each other in keeping with the spirit of the season,” Duckworth said.

The results of a survey taken over a six-day period in November and sponsored by NAMI revealed that most of the respondents reported that the holidays have contributed to feeling sad or dissatisfied.

Approximately 68 percent of those surveyed complained of being financially strained, 66 percent said they have experienced loneliness, 63 percent reported that the holidays brought too much pressure, and 57 percent said the season posed many unrealistic expectations.

Further, 55 percent of those who took the survey found themselves more often than not thinking about what they considered to be happier times, and 50 percent lamented that they were unable to be with their loved ones during the holidays.

“The holiday season beams a spotlight on everything that is difficult about living with depression,” said one respondent who withheld her name for privacy reasons.

“The pressure to be joyful and social is tenfold.”

Mental health officials said it’s important to understand loneliness and stress during the holiday season, and those conditions could be serious if they last for more than two weeks, eventually leading to clinical anxiety and depression.

Also, those who have already been diagnosed with a mental illness often find that their condition becomes worse during the holidays, officials said.

“The six weeks encompassing Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s are for most a magically unique time of year. But for many, the holidays bring hurt,” said Alphonso Gibbs, a Lanham, Maryland-based licensed clinical social worker.

Caused by factors including the weather, separation, death, stress, unrealistic expectations, hyper-sentimentality, guilt, or overspending, holiday depression, also known as the holiday blues, can zap the merriment out of even the most wonderful time of the year, Gibbs said.

He said holiday depression affects approximately 1 million people every year.

“Men and women, young and old, all fall victims to feelings of sadness, loneliness, anxiety, guilt, and fatigue during the emotionally charged season,” Gibbs said.

Health officials at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said that with some practical tips, the stress that normally accompanies the holiday season can be minimized.

Mayo Clinic doctors offered several tips to prevent holiday stress and depression, including trying to avoid stress altogether.

They said that if a close relative or a friend has died recently or if people simply cannot be in the company of loved ones, they should try to realize that it’s normal to feel sadness and a sense of grief.

Further, mental health professionals said there’s nothing wrong with shedding a tear or expressing feelings of loneliness to others. If an individual does feel lonely or isolated, it’s important that they seek comfort from community, religious or other social organizations like NAMI.

“The reason for the season is often swallowed up by maddening materialism that can distract from the history, meaning, and significance of holiday celebrations. Step back, slow down, and refocus on transcendent, eternal matters,” Gibbs said.

“Rededicate yourself to spiritual pursuits, such as church attendance, church work, prayer life, and other disciplines. Regain the focus originally intended by this time of year.”