As the build up to Christmas and the New Year reaches a climax it is for many quite easy to buy into the old maxim ‘ ’tis the season to be jolly’. From the early December Christmas party at work to the last notes of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ the whole holiday season can, if you are lucky, pass by in a blur of festive fun. Of course many of us get stressed at the cost, at the crush in the shops and at the prospect of cooking a dry old bird for ten people. It is a time of year when viruses seem to take great delight in laying us low and we have to deal with sneezing in the stuffing. However, in general the beginning of January marks the end of the old year and the excitement of starting afresh with a new set of resolutions to break before the end of February.
But at the risk of putting a dampener on your celebrations I wanted to raise the real Ghost of Christmases past, present and inevitably the future – depression.
As many as one in three people will experience mental health issues in their lifetime, it is a shocking statistic. It strikes at any time of year of course, not just at Christmas, but still there are people who are unaware of the symptoms in themselves, or in those around them. At this time of year, it is important to recognise that amongst all the tinsel and gift wrap there are thousands of people for whom this festive season is a very difficult time indeed. I am lucky – although I am vulnerable to bouts of depression and anxiety, Christmas is for me a welcome distraction from those thoughts I am prey to at other times of the year. For many others it has the opposite effect. I worked for Mind for two years and we always had to be alert to the needs of those using the service and their families. Sensitivity with the celebrations was vital.
Most people now understand that depression is not just feeling blue for a couple of days when the stress gets too much. You cannot just ‘snap out of it’. It isn’t bursting into tears when you burn the mince pies either; that is most likely to be a relatively healthy response to the stress and a majority of people will have a cry and feel a whole lot better for it.
No, depression is, in my experience, a feeling of being overwhelmed by a dark mood that won’t lift; can’t be lifted. It continues for days and is accompanied by a loss of interest in almost everything that might at one time have given pleasure. Concentration and energy levels slump, anxiety increases, decisions are impossible and in the midst of the depression one feels one has no worth as a person, nothing means anything and guilt becomes unbearable – even if there is nothing to feel guilty about. When the ‘black dog’ of depression is all-consuming, thoughts of suicide nudge their way into what was, at one time, a totally rational brain; one that would be able to cling to the hope that the dog can be driven away. That is when the worst can happen.
Chemical responses to low light levels at this time of year can explain a physical response. Added to this, those who have experienced job loss, the break up of a relationship or a bereavement during the year are especially vulnerable and for people who are on their own Christmas can be the loneliest time of the year, the isolation more acute at a time when everyone else seems to be welcoming love into their lives.
The financial situation we are faced with at the end of 2011 and the levels of debt taken on to fund Christmas has added to the already stressful task of buying presents, providing the anticipated slap-up feasts and living up to family pressures to create that ‘special’ twinkly atmosphere. This can exacerbate a low mood and it is vital that even those who consider themselves mentally healthy take good care of themselves.
So what should you watch out for – in yourself and in others around you?
- Feeling the need drinking to excess. Don’t. Alcohol is a depressant.
- Being alone. If you, or someone you know is going to be alone at Christmas it is worthwhile finding if there is a local volunteer project that needs additional help over the season.
- Arrange to see friends and family over the holiday period. Just for a change of scene. However, where the company seems overwhelming recognise that is perfectly OK to say ‘no’ and make your apologies.
- Go for a walk. It sounds simple and perhaps a little flip, but scientific studies have shown that physical activity of any kind can be highly beneficial in the struggle to lift all but the most serious depression. I have friends planning on going for long runs on Christmas Day or taking a trip to the beach. Boxing day will see me at the allotment.
- Seek professional help. Call a helpline such as Samaritans.
- If you feel depressed it is vital that you talk to friends and family about how you are feeling. Depression is an illness and people should not feel ashamed to express their unhappiness, even if it feels wrong when everyone is trying so hard to be festive. If you have a friends or work colleague who seems to be struggling, let them know you are there if they need you. Listen. The support can make all the difference.
Of course, if you already recognise these symptoms there is still time before the break to see your doctor. The medical profession is getting better at taking depression and anxiety seriously. If you are prescribed anti-depressants they probably won’t start working until the new year, but even a short period on a low dose might be enough to break a cycle.
Remember suicide levels rise to their highest in January. Samaritans expect to receive one call every six seconds over Christmas and New Year.
In fact Samaritans have their own tips for surviving Christmas:
- Don’t give yourself a hard time. It’s just one day a year and if things go wrong you won’t be alone.
- Spot the signs of trouble.
- Look after yourself. Eat and drink sensibly and get some sleep.
- Confide in someone.
- Ask for help. You can call Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 to speak to someone in confidence. Calls are charged at a local rate and they are open 24 hours a day every single day of the year.
Take care of your own mental health this Christmas and look out for others around you. Recognise the warning signs and never, ever feel that admitting you are depressed is to admit defeat or failure. There is help and support out there for what might seem even the most impossible situation.