Some people look forward to the festive season. For others, it may bring dread. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), the holidays can be tougher than usual for those with depression. It can be a time of loneliness, despair or relapsing into bad habits.
In South Africa, the month of December has the highest suicide rate of the year, says Zane Wilson, founder of SADAG.
According to Tamryn Coats, counselling psychologist and researcher at Akeso Specialised Psychiatric Clinics, this is because, during the festive season, advertising and marketing idealise society’s warmest emotions – which doesn't reflect everyone's reality.
Many people with depression are badly affected by this unrealised expectation of joy, leaving family and friends feeling helpless and not sure what to do.
Here are seven ways to make the festive season more bearable for a loved one with depression.
1. Know that it’s not about something you’ve done
It can be especially hard for a parent with a child suffering from depression to cope with withdrawal, erratic moods and often hurtful behaviour – when all you want is for them to be open about their feelings and spend some quality time with you.
Know that depression is not a choice, nor does it take an “attitude adjustment” for a family member to open up and be cheerful. It’s a serious disease caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
What you can do is to offer space, but also make them realise that you are there for them. They don’t actually want to feel that they’re pushing you away.
Don’t dismiss their mental health problems and always take any talk about suicide seriously. Check that they take their medication regularly and offer to help, even with the smallest, most insignificant things.
2. Include your family member or friend in activities (even when you know they will say no)
Even when a loved one with depression prefers to stay home or not partake in activities, it may make a difference to extend an invitation, even when you know it might be rejected.
Someone close to me with depression once said: “Even though I don’t want to go somewhere doesn’t mean I don’t feel hurt when I don’t get invited.” Also, don’t pressure or ask questions when your loved one says, “I’m simply not up for this right now.”
Ask them what you can do, or how you can offer your company. It might be something as simple as watching an episode of their favourite soapie with them, or joining them for a cup of coffee.
3. Certain subjects are best not talked about
Know when a specific subject might trigger a loved one going through a mental dip. During a family dinner someone going through a rough patch doesn't want to be asked uncomfortable questions about their relationship status, fertility, family matters, an unpleasant work situation or any other stressful situation that might be a cause of situational depression.
Be mindful of the type of conversation you bring up and don’t force issues as this might cause them to isolate themselves even more. However, be there when a loved one does want to open up about things going on in their life.
4. Be mindful of additional mental health issues
Depression does not always manifest as someone who wants to stay in their room all the time. Anxiety and eating disorders can also go hand in hand with depression. Do research about mental health issues and educate yourself in to understand a family member or friend’s condition better.
Anxiety can be crippling, especially over the holiday season when one is expected to visit crowded places, and the involvement of food and eating over the holiday season can be truly problematic for someone with food issues like restricting or binge eating.
The more you understand about the manifestation of different mental health problems, the better equipped you will be to help.
5. Be open about depression and support a loved one to get help
Be willing to talk if a loved one wants to open up. Encourage them to get help if they are not yet doing so; don’t express negative judgements and opinions about different treatments; and recommend any treatment options you think might help. You might feel helpless, but the best thing you can do is extend an ear and let them know they have your support.
Important to know
Disclaimer: It's important to know that not all symptoms of depression are always visible and that someone doesn't have to "look depressed". Always check in on those you love and never dismiss any form of suicide talk. Speak up if you notice anything "off", whether it is something on social media, sudden withdrawal or any other unusual behaviour.
Visit the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) for important contact numbers and more information.
For a suicide emergency, dial the SADAG helpline at 0800 567 567, or alternatively, call a counsellor at 011 234 4837 between 08:00 and 20:00 from Monday to Sunday.
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