Christmas cheer not available to all

Victoria mental health expert recommends lending helping hand

While many are wishing joy to the world, a great many others are struggling to simply get through the holiday season with their mental health intact.

The season has a tendency to bring up sad memories, sparking depression and anxiety. Expectations to spend time with, sometimes fractured, families and to be in good cheer can also be stressful to many people. Financial worries also play their part.

“It’s almost a cliche that Christmas is stressful,” said Ragnhild Flakstad, branch development manager for the Victoria branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

But the truth is one in five Canadians experiences mental health issues at one point or another, Flakstad said, meaning odds are someone sitting around your Christmas dinner table is struggling to some degree with the season.

The CMHA is offering a list of tips to help people get through the holiday season. They recommend steps such as planning ahead, staying within a budget, learning stress-busting skills and other strategies to approach the season with as much ease as possible.

Flakstad wants to remind people, however, those with mental health issues are often not in a place, emotionally or mentally, where they are capable of carrying out these tips.

“An individual with mental illness often isn’t able to plan ahead. That’s the nature of the condition,” she said.

Something everyone should be thinking about is helping others and trying to make the holidays comfortable for all. Family members, friends and neighbours can all help those having a hard time with the season in simple ways, either by helping them with some of the planning tips or just spending time with them.

“People like that, they do need sometimes to look to their community and friends for that kind of support,” Flakstad said. “A gift a person can give to a person with mental illness is time. Time and compassion and empathy.”

Many with mental health issues say the stigma they feel from others can be worse than the condition itself, Flakstad said. She asks people to be aware of this and when they see someone perhaps struggling with Christmas events or not conforming to the norms of the season, to treat them with respect and understanding and to help them feel included.

“It’s not a time to blame. It’s a time to acknowledge and respect,” she said. “Mental illness, you can’t just turn it on and off.”

There is information and advice available online for those struggling with the holiday season. CMHA recommends Living Life to the Full, found at llttf.com, which provides strategies for coping with depression and mental health concerns. The full program is eight weeks long and costs $190.

CMHA’s Bounce Back program is also recommended for adults with depression. It’s similar to Living Life to the Full but is done over the telephone. It is free but does require referral from a doctor. For more information visit cmha.bc.ca.

Here to Help, at heretohelp.bc.ca, offers free screening self-tests and options for treatments and resources.

CMHA can also be reached toll-free at 1-800-555-8222.

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