By: Theodora Sirota Ph.D., RN
The Christmas holidays are fast approaching and many of us feel a heightened sense of happiness and anticipation as we look forward to taking time off from study and work, celebrating and exchanging gifts with family and friends, or simply experiencing the beauty and holiness of the season. However, it is important to remember that, for so many, this time of year brings too little joy and a good deal of pain and misery. The Christmas holidays are often the most emotionally difficult time of year for those suffering from mental illness, grief and loss, family stress, or occupational and economic hardship.
For the mentally ill, who make up at least 25% of the population of the United States, the holidays pose major challenges that can result in an escalation of psychiatric symptoms with risk for destructive behavior. Because the chronic mentally ill often have difficulty forming or sustaining social relationships, too many face the holidays with increased emotional stress from having little or no family or friends in their lives. Changes in routine schedules and possible homelessness can increase seasonal anxiety and depression. People suffering from alcohol or drug addiction are at greater risk for relapse due to the holiday stresses, and many do relapse each year at this time.
Christmastime is a potent reminder of past relationships and experiences and many people suffer deeply disruptive feelings of grief, despair, and depression at the holiday season as they recall the death or loss of loved ones. For those with complicated family relationships, and especially those who live with domestic violence, the holidays can intensify feelings of social pressure, guilt, depression, or anger with risk for increased destructive behavior toward self or others. Those facing occupational or economic hardship are at risk for stronger feelings of failure or inadequacy if they cannot participate as fully as they would like in the abundance of the season.
As we celebrate the joy that the holidays bring, let us not forget to take time to reach out to those in our schools, churches, or communities who may be suffering more at this season as a result of mental illness or social crisis. Encourage family and friends to work with churches and other community organizations to provide relaxed and comfortable activities for those who are lonely and without family ties. Volunteer at food banks or soup kitchens to bring a bit of sunshine into the lives of people who too often do not see a smile or greeting from others. Reach out with a visit or invitation to someone who is alone and lonely at this time of year. Support their spiritual needs by offering encouragement and assistance to attend religious services. Finally, let us all support charities that assist the mentally ill and those experiencing social challenges and learn all we can to better understand and aid those in need.
To learn more and to find resources go to:
www.NAMI.org – The National Alliance on Mental Illness
www.ccannj.com — Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark
www.shelteroursisters.org – Shelter our Sisters
www.mentalhealthamerica.net – Mental Health America
www.NIMH.gov – National Institute of Mental Health
Theodora Sirota PhD, RN, CNL, PMHCNS-BC is is associate professor of nursing at Caldwell University. An advanced practice psychiatric nurse, she teaches courses related to psychiatric- mental health nursing and nursing research and teaches clinically in hospital and community health settings. She is certified as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst and conducts a private practice in psychodynamic and cognitive behavioral psychotherapies in NYC.