In the News

Surviving the holiday blues

By Mary Welch, For the AJC

Happy holidays. Merry Christmas. Joy to the world. Not so fast … While the holidays are a joyous time filled with family, love, gratitude, merriment and community, for many it is anything but. Whether it is because of grieving, loneliness, a sense of isolation or stress, mental health issues are often exacerbated by the holidays. Emotions can range from a basic bah humbug to suicidal thoughts. In fact, there is a name for it, Seasonal Affective Disorder, which starts around November and ends in January.

As we are in the midst of the holiday season, it is important to know that there are options for people who need help not only getting through the holidays but, hopefully, life in general.

“The holiday blues are a real thing and you see changes in eating, sleeping, fatigue, mood instability, feeling overwhelmed and an absence of happiness in activities that are supposed to be pleasurable. It results in more guilt and shame,” says Brittney Walters, a licensed clinical social worker with Chris 180, a multi-service behavioral health organization.

Abby Duvall graduated in May from the University of Georgia. Days before she was to start her new job, her father, who was her primary caretaker, committed suicide. She called her employer and was given three days to grieve before reporting to work.

“I just had to distance myself from a lot of things and try to process everything. I started to have a weird intense sense of loneliness and I couldn’t connect with my friends. I was no longer that 22-year-old who wanted to drink in bars.”

Recognizing she was going down a dark path, Duvall called the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Georgia (800-273-8255) and found a lifeline. “I started clicking on the website’s links and got down to ‘if you need a friend to connect with, we will get you one’,” she says. “I was at such a low point that I was willing to have a random conversation with a stranger, but I got a text message right away and started talking to this guy named Jim who just listened. Then I got this kit that gave me a lot of personalized information. And, it’s free.”

The first holidays without her father are tough. Her two sisters had plans and Duvall was alone. “I had a breakdown. I was seeing all my friends in group messages talking about what their families were doing for Thanksgiving and what they wanted for Christmas. I used to fit into that group, and now I don’t. I finally called my sisters and told them I was super alone and needed them to come.”

Duvall strung lights and cooked. “I wasn’t thankful; I was angry. I don’t have a mom or dad like everyone else but then I realized that I had two sisters, which is more than others. That’s what I focused on.”

For Christmas, she is thinking of a trip and volunteering. “It’s hard to see people happy when you’re heartbroken,” she says. “I think I’ll go away and then volunteer so that I’m not so focused on what I’ve lost. All it takes is connecting with one person who’s hurting.”

Kate’s Club offers services for children who have experienced loss. “We’re making sure we support people at the holidays,” says Lane Pease, director of programs. “The anticipation of the holiday is often worse than the actual day. People have to find out what works for them.”

Many children make a shadow box in memory of the deceased. “There are times when you want to be alone, but it’s also fine to accept invitations,” she says. “Don’t force yourself. Being the only child without two parents may be hard. But, it also may be a release and a distraction. Don’t fall into the trap of sitting at a table alone.”

Sometimes friends fear invading someone’s privacy by asking if they need help; conversely, those who need support may be afraid to ask for it, Pease says. “The first year of loss is especially hard, so I tell friends to offer tangible support. Share a memory or ask to take kids shopping for presents. Bring a meal. Have the child over to to make cookies. It’s important not to judge. If people want to be alone, let them.”

“The holidays can be difficult for people for a myriad of reasons but there are options if someone wants to call and just talk to someone or, in an extreme case, offer an emotional support line,” says Dr. Terri Timberlake-Briscoe, state director of the Office of Adult Mental Health for the state’s Georgia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities. “Not only are these services free and confidential, but you can also text us so it’s more private,” she says. “It’s OK not to be OK.”

She suggests crisis lines such as the Georgia Crisis and Access Line (800-715-4225), a toll-free, confidential hot line available 24-hours, 7 days a week. It connects callers with a trained, professional counselor who can help them obtain the needed services or help someone they know suffering.

The CARES Warm Line (844-326-5400) provides confidential free assistance to those who are struggling and need someone to talk to, many of whom have been in a similar situation. Operated by the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, it is available year-round from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

The Georgia COVID-19 Emotional Support Line (866-399-8938) provides free and confidential assistance to callers in need of emotional support or resource information as a result of COVID-19. It is staffed by volunteers, including mental health professionals and others who have received training in crisis counseling, and open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Lost and Found, which assists LBGTQI+ youth, also has a 24-hour, 7 days a week youth hotline (678-856-7825).

County and city senior citizens’ and religious organizations also offer support. “During the holidays we are encouraging our seniors to maybe have a Friendsgiving or volunteer. We encourage them to get out in the community,” says Joi Brown, manager of the Gwinnett County’s Health & Human Services.

Celebrities are often contacted for emotional support. Radio personalities may be viewed as family by listeners who call in to talk about their problems. Veteran radio host Dallas McCade, now at New Country 101.5, takes that connection seriously. “Our job is to make people laugh and we laugh at ourselves. We have people reach out [when talking about their lives] and say they had the same feelings,” she says. “They thought they were alone but when they hear us, they feel better. We talk about doing kind acts for people, especially during the holidays.”

She hopes her message connects with her audience. “I talk to people who are struggling and you do what you can to ease their pain. You’re not walking in their shoes but you can try to understand. What I tell our listeners is that things may be bad today, but they will get better. They will get better! Hang in there.”

This article ran on 12/03/21 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Online and 12/07/21 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper.