Taking care of ourselves and each other during the holidays

Published 9:00 am Thursday, December 21, 2023

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Many people look forward to the holiday season. The holidays this time of year often bring the promises of visiting family, opening gifts, and taking a little break from the usual hustle and bustle of life. It’s a chance for a change of pace, and to brighten up everything with a bit of celebration.

So there is often plenty of things to get excited about. Maybe you’re like me and particularly enjoy looking at Christmas decorations or getting an opportunity to eat some sweet treats that you don’t usually have. Others relish Christmas traditions or the cold weather or the opportunity to cozy up to a fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate.

But everyone’s experience is different, and for some, the holiday season can be stressful, painful, or difficult to get through. For some, holiday celebrations morph into mourning a loss or dealing with not being able to be near family and friends. For others, this time of year may be a tough reminder of estranged or broken family relationships. And people living with depression and anxiety may find their mental health suffering more than usual, especially when society is constantly telling us that it’s supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year.”

Each year, I set aside space in one column to share information about suicide prevention, coping with loss, and taking care of our mental health too. I think those are important things to remember all year long, but especially during this season.

Many people can be suffering, but they won’t always try to reach out for help and support. Some may even try to hide it, leading to undiagnosed and untreated conditions like depression and substance abuse. Here are some helpful things to do if you’re worried about someone who may be at risk for suicide or self-harm, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) website:

Firstly, know what warning signs to look for. A sudden change in behavior can be one of the biggest red flags that a person’s mental health has plummeted to the most dangerous levels, especially after a painful event, loss, or change. Other red flags include talking about feeling hopeless or being a burden to others; withdrawing from activities; isolating from family and friends; increased use of alcohol or drugs; having moods like loss of interest and irritability; and much more.

But even if there aren’t obvious warning signs, it’s always a good idea to reach out to friends and family, and make sure you’re having open and honest conversations about mental health.

If you find that someone is at risk, AFSP has information on how to handle that as well. Talk to the person in private where you’ll both feel more comfortable. Focus on listening to them. Be reassuring. Offer support. Avoid minimizing their problems or giving advice. Encourage them to seek treatment. You can even choose to assist their search for treatment, since it can be pretty overwhelming to navigate anything health-related alone these days.

If the situation is more serious, stay with the person until you can get them to professional help and remove anything lethal they may have access to. You can also reach out to emergency resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which has changed its number to the easier-to-remember “988” or you can text TALK to 741741. Trained counselors are available at any time every day of the year.

Trillium Health Resources is a local provider that can also help connect people to the mental health support they may need.

For people who are grieving during the holidays, here are a few suggestions, also from AFSP, to learn how to cope with the loss:

Remember that there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to spend the holidays, so it’s best to do what’s best for yourself. That means its okay if you find comfort in carrying on a tradition without a loved one who usually participates, and it’s okay if you feel like you need a break (temporarily or permanently) from the tradition instead. Perhaps you can even start a new tradition if that feels like it would bring comfort and healing.

It’s important to communicate your needs with friends and family in advance, so they can be prepared to offer whatever support you may need. And it’s definitely okay to take a break from a get-together if necessary, especially if you feel like you’re having a harder time than expected. In some cases, it might be helpful to travel for a change of scenery or volunteer locally in honor of a loved one.

But overall, it’s a good idea to do what’s best for your mental health. We all go through grief at some point in time, so other people can often understand and relate to the same struggles.

“Do the best you can, and remember that healing takes time, and the experience is different for everyone,” the AFSP website says. “How you feel this year may not be how you feel in future years – take it one occasion at a time.”

No matter what situation we find ourselves in during the upcoming holidays, I hope these resources can be helpful to you all in some way. And even when the holiday season is over, I hope we continue to take care of our mental health and look out for each other in the year to come.

Life isn’t always easy, but we don’t have to face it all alone.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.