Five Tips to Help Those Hardest Hit by Mental Health Make it Through the Holidays

December holidays can be a time for family, food, and favorite traditions. But sadly, the holidays are also a time of mental health challenges. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “64% of people with mental illness report holidays make their conditions worse.”

If time of year is one complicating factor, the pandemic and the staff shortages of mental health professionals are another. The groups suffering the most are teenagers and young adults — exactly those who might have a hard time asking for help.

  • The American Psychology Association found adolescents and young adults were the hardest hit by the pandemic in terms of mental health outcomes.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report stated 1 in 4 young adults ages 18 to 24 had considered suicide within the past month and a similar percentage started or increased substance use because of the pandemic.
  • According to one analysis, school districts across the country with a combined 3 million students started the year with nearly 1,000 unfilled mental health positions.
  • Children’s Minnesota in St. Paul, MN is opening a new in-patient mental health unit in December to meet a surge in demand for mental health care.

Five Ways to Manage Mental Health During the Holidays

Here are tips from the mental health professionals at Franklin Therapy, whose expertise focuses on the intersection of mental and behavioral health.

1. Don’t fake the festive
If you have a child or young adult with depression or anxiety who feels anything but festive, that’s fine. Let them know they don’t have to be merry! It’s good to acknowledge feelings, whatever they may be. Remind them they are not alone: no matter what they see on holiday movies or hear in the constant holiday music, many people aren’t joyful.

Bonus tip:
Alcohol or other substances that seem to offer relief actually make anxiety and depression worse.

2. Skip the Reindeer Games
Whether it’s you as the caregiver or the teenager or young adult in your life who doesn’t want to go to holiday events, accept those boundaries. If your family has important activities, like the first night of Hannukah or opening presents on Christmas morning, make those a priority and give yourself or your child the gift of saying “no” to other events.

Bonus tip: If we can all recognize that the season affects each person differently, that’s a gift we can all give to each other.

3. Unwrap the Gift-Giving Anxiety
One added cause of stress is the pressure to give gifts. That could be a financial stress or the stress of expectations. What if Grandma doesn’t like the sweater? What if dad wanted a watch and I gave him socks?

If you’re the parent or caregiver for a younger person, help them think through a reasonable budget, and/or brainstorm non-financial gifts. For large groups, maybe this is the year to try something different like at a Secret Santa or White Elephant exchange to reduce the number of items everyone needs to buy.

And think about the gift of help. Maybe your teenagers can offer to shovel snow or go grocery shopping with an older relative. A card showing appreciation for a teacher or friend is something that can be treasured for years. Showing you thought of the other person is more important than the gift.

Bonus tip: Generosity is a double gift. When we focus on others and less on ourselves, we reduce our anxiety.

4. Give the Gift of Sunshine
Sunlight plays a key role in our moods, but with shorter winter days, it can be hard to get enough. Even if you don’t think you or your child/young adult suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), know that sunshine still plays a role in your health.

To boost your or your child’s mood and regulate sleep, go outside in the middle of the day when the sun is brightest. If you can, work or sit near a window throughout the day. Even outfitting your home with warm, bright lighting can help improve the mood. (Many traditions this time of year involve candles and twinkling lights for a reason.)

Bonus Tip: Light therapy tools are much more available now than in the past, at all different price points.

5. All Alone for Christmas
If your teenager or young adult is feeling alone, remind them of the people, places, and things that make them happy. Suggest they create a video or a poster of all the “mood lifters” in their lives. And don’t forget the value of seeing faces, even on screen. As a caregiver, you could help by scheduling a regular call or video chat with friends or family so it’s less of an effort.

If they don’t feel comfortable being social, create a “holiday-free zone” where they can get away from decorations and holiday music and do calming activities, such as reading, meditating, and gratitude journaling.

Bonus tip: We tend to lose some healthy habits during the holidays, but what you put in your body matters – all year. Even if you add more treats, for example, keep eating the healthy fruits, vegetables, and proteins you normally eat. And stay hydrated. It’s amazing what drinking even one glass of water can do to boost mood and energy.

Should I Talk to Someone?
If you or your loved one has been feeling anxious or depressed for more than two weeks or if the holidays are long gone and you or they are still feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed, talk to a mental health professional.

If you don’t have one – and we know the wait list can be long – reach out to your primary care physician or try one of the online therapists who can connect via phone or video.

As always, with any level or type of suicidal thought, call the suicide hotline at 988 from anywhere in the U.S. When in doubt, there is no doubt. Call them! That’s what they’re there for.

Sources: Psychology Today, MPR News, Franklin Therapy newsletter, Dec 2022