211206ind Grief

The holiday season can lead many who struggle with mental health issues especially vulnerable to increased rates of depression this year, local and national professionals in counseling say.

Editor's Note: A typo in the headline to this story has been corrected.

Mixing COVID losses of any kind with the normal holiday “blues” — a sense of depression — can rob the holiday spirit and reverberating effects from the pandemic is making these feelings more prevalent, say local and national professionals in counseling.

It’s a time of year that many people get stressed, which can trigger anxiety. The season triggers memories and feelings of loss about those who have died, changes in life, rush of holiday preparations among many causes.

And it comes as the U.S. Surgeon General warned that young people are facing “devastating” mental health effects as a result of the challenges experienced by their generation, including the coronavirus pandemic.

Further, it is still unclear how much of a threat the fast-spreading omicron variant poses, but fear and a sudden revival of restrictions have added to an epidemic of loneliness, according to a review done by The New York Times.

“A sense of community is vitally important for anybody who is struggling,” said Rev. Clay Berry, pastor of Wakefield Baptist Church. His congregation has an outreach mission to help people struggling with any variety of personal matters ranging from mental illness to simple transient problems that are less serious.

The American culture helps to foster images of incredibly happy moments that people then feel obligated to fulfill for themselves and others, say Berry and others assisting those struggling with anxiety, depression, loneliness and other mental health problems.  

“You see these Hallmark movies and they always have happy endings right? The reality is that’s not how endings really are. TV is only going show you the good outcome, but the reality is there’s bad outcomes and good outcomes,” said Dr. Richard Miller, a psychiatrist.

As The New York Times review pointed out, the pandemic not only makes this month’s vacation or holiday celebrations seem uncertain, but also sometimes overwhelms understanding.

Once linear, life now seems circular. Schools open. They close again. Travel becomes easier, only for new obstacles to arise. Sickness from Covid-19 subsides, to be replaced by long Covid and now indications that even those who have recovered from the virus might get reinfected with Omicron.

Persistent questions arise, such as how to cope and deal with assess the avalanche of statistics, opinions, warnings, closures, reopenings? Do you have a family gathering with some risk in it? Do you fly or drive somewhere as news of the newest variant spreads?

These all affect mood, sense of place and disrupt long-held feelings about a holiday season that is marketed as a joyous and family-centered time, but has never held in reality to that image for everyone.

Support Systems

Miller, Berry and Dr. Anthony Gallo, a North Kingstown psychiatrist at South County Psychiatry, emphasized that having support from a community of individuals.

Coping with recurring fears of the COVID-19 and its variants spreading as well as issues arising from unrelated problems means setting some expectations for yourself, say these and other mental health experts.

Finding some control to disturbing events, feelings and simply an atmosphere, such as joy during the holiday season for someone feeling sad, can help to combat accompanying anxiety and depression, they said.

It comes through a number of ways, whether personal self-discipline, individual private therapy with a mental health counselor, taking with trusted friends or attending self-help group meetings.

“One of my aims is for the church to become a welcoming place and hospitality for people who may struggling for mental or emotional difficulties of one sort or another,” said Berry.

His church is sponsoring a series of get-together programs focused around building that community and people sharing their experiences with loss of hope.

“COVID hit and there was isolation, mental strain and toll, and losses of all kinds that people experienced, such as no funerals and there was little community support to be offered,” he said.

“I really think it has left a lot of emotional scars on people,” Berry added.  

Looking now toward the varying development of COVID and its variants, he said that his congregation wanted to have events and opportunities for people to come together.

“We want to give opportunity for others to talk about what they’ve been through with the losses they’ve suffered. We want to create community with intestinal compassionate focus,” he said.

These kinds of programs are helpful to people, whether through churches of self-help organizations, whether dealing with alcoholism, bereaved parents whose children have died or any other variety of traumatic events that replay upsetting memories at holiday time.

These kinds of groups offer settings for sharing experiences and group recognition and support for a traumatic experience.

Recognizing an Issue

In addition, recognizing your own individual situation is important to have as good an outcome as possible.

“The first thing is that people should set realistic expectations about what is supposed to happen at the holidays,” Gallo has pointed out.

“For instance, if someone is already working a full-time job, has routine family commitments, then bakes cookies, has religious events and then mixes in some travel, that is a lot for anyone,” he noted.

He said that people need to set aside time to consider their personal priorities and decide those that are essential for their happiness.

“Is baking holiday cookies adding significant joy to the holiday? Is going out to get more presents or going to more holiday parties going to add joy, or are these going take away from the holiday joy?” he asked.

He said that balancing others’ needs and your own is the key to helping barricade against the blues. It is a difficult personal evaluation, which varies from person to person, both said.

Many people often complain about feeling consumed by the fires of family conflicts.

“Spending time with family can be conflict ridden. Understanding how much time one wants to spend with family may be an important consideration,” said Gallo.

While some may feel guilt when putting themselves first, it is a requirement for reducing anxiety, sadness, especially when holidays summon memories of those feelings again, and stress.

“For instance, one may value alone time, but also value time with family. Understanding that both of these are important and you cannot exclude one versus the other. And that is a process,” Gallo said, adding, “One may not find the perfect balance immediately and it may have to evolve over time.”

Taking Steps

For those with mild or transient gloominess or anxiety, these mental health professionals offered the following suggestions:

  • Get regular exercise, which have mental and physical health benefits.
  • Focus on keeping your routine sleep schedule and don’t allow yourself to become overtired.
  • Moderate the amounts of alcohol you drink.
  • Don’t over eat, which can also lead to interrupted sleep or insomnia.
  • If you are alone, put structure in your life, don’t just hang out at home with nothing to do.
  • Social with friends as much as possible, if you have them
  • Go to free activities and keep busy to remove the focus on troubling feelings.
  • If you are recovery from alcohol or drug abuse, go to more Narcotic Anonymous and Alcoholic Anonymous meetings to help prevent an increased risk of relapse during the holidays.
  • If you have trouble with your family issues, seek out an Adult Children of Alcoholics meeting where they cover any number of alcohol- and non-alcohol-related topics.
  • Visit with a member of clergy, mental health professional or primary care physician.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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