Happy holidays. Merry Christmas. Joy to the world. Not so fast … While the holidays are a joyous time filled with family, love, gratitude, merriment and community, for many it is anything but.
Whether it’s because of grieving, loneliness, a sense of isolation or stress, mental health issues are often exacerbated by the holidays. Emotions can range from a basic bah humbug to suicidal thoughts. In fact, there is a name for it, seasonal affective disorder, which starts around November and usually ends in January.
As we are in the midst of the holiday season, it is important to know there are options for people who need help not only getting through the holidays but also for life in general.
“The holiday blues are a real thing, and you see changes in eating, sleeping, fatigue, mood instability, feeling overwhelmed and an absence of happiness in activities that are supposed to be pleasurable. It results in more guilt and shame,” said Brittney Walters, a licensed clinical social worker.
Abby Duvall graduated in May from the University of Georgia. Her father, who was her primary caretaker, committed suicide just days before she was to start her new job. She called her employer and was given three days to grieve before reporting to work.
“I just had to distance myself from a lot of things and try to process everything. I started to have a weird intense sense of loneliness, and I couldn’t connect with my friends. I was no longer that 22-year-old who wanted to drink in bars,” Duvall said.
Recognizing she was going down a dark path, Duvall called the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Georgia (1-800-273-8255) and found a lifeline. “I started clicking on the website’s links and got down to ‘if you need a friend to connect with, we will get you one,’” she said. “I was at such a low point that I was willing to have a random conversation with a stranger, but I got a text message right away and started talking to this guy named Jim who just listened. Then I got this kit that gave me a lot of personalized information. And, it’s free.”
The first holidays without her father are tough. Her two sisters had plans, and Duvall was alone. “I had a breakdown. I was seeing all my friends in group messages talking about what their families were doing for Thanksgiving and what they wanted for Christmas. I used to fit into that group, and now I don’t. I finally called my sisters and told them I was super alone and needed them to come.”
Duvall strung lights and cooked. “I wasn’t thankful; I was angry. I don’t have a mom or dad like everyone else but then I realized that I had two sisters, which is more than others. That’s what I focused on.”
Kate’s Club offers services for children who have experienced loss. “We’re making sure we support people at the holidays,” said Lane Pease, director of programs. “The anticipation of the holiday is often worse than the actual day. People have to find out what works for them.”
Many children make a shadow box in memory of the deceased. “There are times when you want to be alone, but it’s also fine to accept invitations,” she said. “Don’t force yourself. Being the only child without two parents may be hard. But, it also may be a release and a distraction. Don’t fall into the trap of sitting at a table alone.”
Sometimes friends fear invading someone’s privacy by asking if they need help; conversely, those who need support may be afraid to ask for it, Pease said. “The first year of loss is especially hard, so I tell friends to offer tangible support. Share a memory or ask to take kids shopping for presents. Bring a meal. Have the child over to to make cookies. It’s important not to judge. If people want to be alone, let them.”
“The holidays can be difficult for people for a myriad of reasons but there are options if someone wants to call and just talk to someone or, in an extreme case, offer an emotional support line,” said Terri Timberlake-Briscoe, state director of the Office of Adult Mental Health for the state’s Georgia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities. “Not only are these services free and confidential, but you can also text us so it’s more private. It’s OK not to be OK.”
She suggested crisis lines such as the Georgia Crisis and Access Line (1-800-715-4225), a toll-free, confidential hotline available 24 hours a dau, seven days a week. It connects callers with a trained, professional counselor who can help them obtain the needed services or help someone they know is suffering.
The CARES Warm Line (844-326-5400) provides confidential free assistance to those who are struggling and need someone to talk to, many of whom have been in a similar situation. Operated by the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, it is available year-round from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The Georgia COVID-19 Emotional Support Line (866-399-8938) provides free and confidential assistance to callers in need of emotional support or resource information as a result of COVID-19. It is staffed by volunteers, including mental health professionals and others who have received training in crisis counseling, and open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Lost-n-Found Youth, which assists LBGTQI+ youth, also has a 24-hour, seven days a week youth hotline (678-856-7825).
County and city senior citizens’ and religious organizations also offer support. “During the holidays we are encouraging our seniors to maybe have a Friendsgiving or volunteer. We encourage them to get out in the community,” said Joi Brown, manager of Gwinnett County’s Health & Human Services.
Celebrities are often contacted for emotional support. Radio personalities may be viewed as family by listeners who call in to talk about their problems. Veteran radio host Dallas McCade, at New Country 101.5, takes that connection seriously. “Our job is to make people laugh and we laugh at ourselves. We have people reach out (when talking about their lives) and say they had the same feelings,” she said. “They thought they were alone but when they hear us, they feel better. We talk about doing kind acts for people, especially during the holidays.”
She hopes her message connects with her audience. “I talk to people who are struggling and you do what you can to ease their pain. You’re not walking in their shoes but you can try to understand. What I tell our listeners is that things may be bad today, but they will get better. They will get better! Hang in there.”