Mental health in mind: Expert says holiday season can be challenging time for those grappling with stress, blues and other issues

Health hangups could be hindering regular family gatherings less this year than in each calendar turn between 2020’s fretted pandemic and last year’s so-called tripledemic. …

Still, mental health leaders said, it’s important to remember that this is when less-visible problems can make themselves apparent.

The not-so-cheery backdrop to the holiday season is that one person’s joyful time of the year can be just the opposite for another. It’s a cold reality, but one that the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies is promoting as yet another way of plowing through the stigma surrounding the issues they are at the center of as the state’s mental health trade group.

Shauna Moses. (New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies)

Shauna Moses, the agency’s vice president, public affairs and member services, said there’s a lot of factors that can put a damper on holiday merriment.

“Besides the fact that anyone with tension in friendships or family relationships having that possibly intensified during the holidays … it could be an especially difficult time for anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one, whether that was recently or further back in time,” she said. “That loss may be more acutely felt during the holidays.”

Missing family or loved ones during the holidays ranked as the third-highest cause of stress during the holidays in a recent survey published by the American Psychological Association. It followed behind the pressures of gift-giving and the burden it puts on people who don’t have the disposable income for it.

There’s a cumulative effect on those “holiday blues,” Moses said, when you consider that, each year, many people experience seasonal affective disorder (aptly referred to by the acronym SAD). Millions of people in the U.S. suffer from this winter depression, a downturn in mood that accompanies shorter days and less sunlight.

This year, she added, there’s the extra layer of distress for anyone with friends or relatives in conflict-stricken parts of the globe, such as Israel, Gaza or Ukraine.

“The bottom line is that there’s a lot of overlapping situations,” she said. “The more someone is dealing with at a given time, the impact could be even greater on existing depression and anxiety. It can lead to increased issues for some people.”

That was demonstrated in a survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in which 64% of people living with mental illnesses reported a worsening of their conditions during the holidays.

There are resources out there to help individuals overcome these life challenges — assuming the problems are being identified.

Moses said some of the “red flags” might be losing interest in regular activities or hobbies, changes in sleep habits or appetites and unexplainable body aches or pains. More obvious warning signs than that: Preoccupations with death or self-destructive behaviors.

In the case it’s someone else displaying those signs, Moses recommends nonjudgmentally encouraging that person to talk about their problems. And there’s nothing wrong with recommending they seek support when it’s needed.

If it’s a personal issue instead, whether you’re coping with any diagnosed mental health issue or not, a little self-care goes a long way, Moses said.

“Self-care is so essential for anyone, not only during the holidays, but all the time,” she said. “And it’s the things you always hear about: eating properly, exercising, getting fresh air and engaging in meaningful activities and hobbies.”

When a long walk and a few days’ reprieve from holiday sweets isn’t enough, there’s no shame whatsoever in taking it a step further, Moses suggested.

“It’s important to have someone to talk to, even if it’s a friend or family member — it doesn’t always have to be a mental health professional,” she said. “But, I do think everyone should be open to seeking professional care, especially if that depression, anxiety or substance use is becoming such a big issue that it’s interfering with daily life.”

A more widespread openness to seeking professional help is a perennial wish-list item for leaders in the mental health space.

Throughout the pandemic, those leaders have noted more of a willingness to admit struggles. They’re pleased with that.

But, there’s still a long way to go.

“A big problem with stigma is that people feel like, if they admit they’re depressed, anxious or can’t handle these things, that it’s a sign of weakness,” Moses said. “The truth is, it’s just the opposite. Seeking help, and taking care of yourself, is a sign of strength.”