BALTIMORE, Md. — The holidays typically are a joyous time of year but not for everyone. It can be a stressful or depressing time for others.
As the pandemic forces many people to forgo their annual Christmas traditions, it can have a negative effect on their mental health.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chief medical officer Dr. Ken Duckworth explained there's a reason why many see the holidays as the most wonderful time of year to get together with friends and family.
“Connection is an anti-depressant. Connection is an anti-anxiety intervention. No side-effects, right, to being with people that you love and care about. And this year, that's going to be distorted for a lot of people,” Duckworth said.
It can be difficult to deal with considering most people have an ideal image of what a joyous time should look like.
“Back in the day, the TV ads show multi-generational, happy, connected families all gathering together, surely agreeing on politics, and getting along just fine but this isn't most people's reality. And that's pre-pandemic,” Duckworth said.
Dr. Duckworth described what the holidays actually are like for most people.
“The real truth is, you are human. We all have strengths. We all have weaknesses. We all have vulnerabilities. We all wish our families were happy together, and multi generational, that's not going to happen this year. And for many of us, it doesn't happen any year,” Duckworth said.
Changes brought on by the pandemic could make it a challenge to get into the Christmas spirit this year.
“A lot of people will not be able to hug people they love. A lot of people who are coming back from college will be quarantining in your basement for a series of time, right? There is a lot of disruption” Duckworth said.
With holiday traditions transformed, expectations not met, and loneliness brought on by the isolation of social distancing, trying to celebrate the holidays during the pandemic takes a toll on the mental health of many.
“CDC has told us that 42 percent of Americans have significant mental health challenges, you're not alone. And if you're living with a mental health condition, and you want to find connection, the National Alliance on Mental Illness is a great resource for people NAMI Baltimore, NAMI Maryland, these are exceptionally good groups,” Duckworth said.
Friends and families will still gather this holiday season, except individually on Zoom instead of a crowded dinner table but Dr. Duckworth reminds people it's OK if your celebration looks a lot different than usual.
“It's important to remember, don't compare yourself to a mystic ideal created by Madison Avenue. Be mindful that connection is good for you. do your best to stay connected, and that's more creativity than mental health,” Duckworth said.
Christmas 2020 doesn't have to be canceled but it will be a holiday to remember and one that many would like to forget.
“We're going to get through it, and cognitively I think that makes a difference. If you thought this was the rest of your life, I think that would be different but I think if you fully recognize, that this is probably one very bad holiday season,” Duckworth said.
Going into the holiday with that in mind, Dr. Duckworth said out one way the season of giving can protect your mental health.
“Giving is good for people. Giving is good for one's mental health, so I’m not suggesting that you have to give money, a lot of people have lost their jobs, had economic disruption, but think of a way to be focused on others,” Dr. Duckworth said.
Giving to others is a gift you can give yourself. Dr. Duckworth explained it's a classic mental health strategy to take the focus off of your own issues and redirect your thoughts to something positive.
“I’m not doing, this isn't going well, OK, that's a spiral that you can get in to. OK, my family, it is what it is, we have a lot of something that's positive, we have some problems, we're probably like many families. What do we do for other people? Can we think of a way to help other people, because it's not all about us,” Duckworth said.
Social media is one way people to stay connected with others but it often presents a distorted view of another person's reality. It also causes people to compare themselves with another person's happiness, and making them feel anything but festive.
“I’m talking about actually calling your friends, right. Actually talking to people you think might love you for who you are, and stay connected to them. It's not really to demonstrate to the 400th person in your life that you've got it going on. The key is, you need a small group of people that you can share an actual human experience with, and hopefully, you can be of support to them too,” Duckworth said.
If the holidays are taking too much a toll on your mental health it's important to know when to get help.
“If you're having problems with functioning, your role as a parent, your role as an employee. Duration, if you've had symptoms of some sort for more than a week or two. And safety, if you're thinking of harming yourself, or someone in your immediate world, for whatever reason, those are the three things, you should get an evaluation. It's not a commitment to a lifelong treatment, but it's an evaluation,” Duckworth said.
Contact NAMI Maryland