For many, the holidays can be a time of happiness, coming together with family and making memories.
But for those fighting unseen battles with mental illness, the holidays can also be a time of loneliness, loss and remembrance.
“The holidays can often act as a trigger for a lot of people,” said Katie Newman, mental health services coordinator for Forsyth County Schools and owner of Higher Grounds Counseling. “It can be an anniversary that triggers them, again experiencing that depression, stress and anxiety. Many people have experienced those things. It may be sometimes hard not to look at them and say, ‘Why aren’t you able to get over it? This is the holidays,’ and really push your expectations on that loved one.
“There needs to be importance on [the fact] that others may need time to realize how deeply this affects their life.”
Dealing professionally with both children and adults, Newman said she gets a view of the family and how the actions of one person impact the mental health of other family members, particularly around the holidays.
“We don’t just look at the child, we look at the whole family because we know what the adults do affects the child,” Newman said. “If mom is sad or mad, everybody is sad or mad. So it affects everybody.”
According to a 2014 survey by the National Alliance of Mental Illness, about 24 percent of about 300 responders diagnosed with mental illness claimed the holiday season made their condition “a lot” worse and 40 percent said it became “somewhat” worse.
While many have notions about what mental health is and what it impacts, Newman said the school system looks at eight mental health factors: physical, financial, environmental, intellectual, cultural, relational, emotional and occupational health.
Newman said there are several factors that contribute to the mental health concerns around the holidays.
For one, the holidays can be a source of financial stress for many families, which Newman said can be alleviated by not going into debt and taking part in gift-givings like secret Santa, where many can take part but each person only buys one gift.
“We talk a lot about planning a budget and using cash or debit because there is a lot of remorse that happens in January when those credit card bills come in,” Newman said. “A tip would be to use more cash and debit and less credit cards because we have a lot of families that overspend and keeping up with the Joneses because we are an affluent community, but we do see a lot of dips and a lot of issues happening in January with families having to pay their bills.”
Along with not spending too much money, Newman said families should be careful to now spread themselves or their kids too thin over the holidays and recommended setting a cap of how many holiday events to attend and carving out family time.
“Family members definitely try to bring up old news or guilt trips and push boundaries that you may feel obligated to do things that you don’t want to do,” she said. “It can definitely cause you to overcommit yourself to multiple things and overcommit your children, so we have a lot of children that are just pushed to the max, and that’s when a lot of behaviors come out, especially in elementary school kids. They’re tired and being dragged place to place.”
For some, the holidays can also bring up memories of loved ones who have passed away. Newman said in her role with Forsyth County Schools, the policy is to help students acknowledge those losses.
“It can be remembering the old traditions or when their loved one was still alive, but trying to talk to students about, ‘What were your loved one’s favorite interests? How did you like spending your time with that person?’ and maybe some things just to honor that loved one,” she said.
While the holidays can be challenging, Newman said there are several things individuals can try to do. Among the most important, she said, is staying active and involved with the community.
“When you’re isolated and lonely and you have depression, it’s hard to muster up the courage to go out and do something,” she said. “But if you volunteer and know they’re relying on you, then you’re more likely to get out of your house and interact with others, and that does help, and it does bring a lot of hope to individuals that are experiencing that.”
In a bit of advice that those with time off work or school may resist, Newman said it is important to keep a routine and stay active.
“Keeping a routine is so important to your mental health, even if it is waking up at the same time and taking a cat nap later on,” she said. “Keeping your sleep cycle solid throughout the holidays will help you so much more when you go back to work, and you won’t feel as overstressed and anxious because your body is out of rhythm.”
For those who are experiencing mental health or financial issues over the holidays, Newman said to reach out to community organizations, such as The Place of Forsyth County’s Holiday House, which provides assistance for holiday gifts to parents in-need and is a volunteer opportunity for those that need to stay active.
“We try to also reach out to those families and instill hope that your community loves you,” Newman said. “You may be going through a hard time, but your community wants to support, just to make them feel not so isolated, that they do have a community that they can help with.”