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Chuck Ingoglia

President and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health

During the Holidays, Give the Gift of Compassion

December 18, 2020 | From the CEO | Comments
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Ordinarily the holidays offer a much-needed respite for many of us.

The time off from work or school provide opportunities to step away from daily routines, rest and re-charge.

While it’s nice to think of the holidays as “the most wonderful time of the year,” they also can be stressful times. Not everyone responds positively to the relentless marketing (which seems to begin earlier each year). Not everyone has an opportunity to spend time with family or friends, huddled around a fireplace in warm, fuzzy sweaters. Not everyone likes fruit cake (this I don’t understand).

Even in a typical year, the holidays present challenges to our mental health. But we all know 2020 hasn’t been a typical year. The pandemic has fueled anxiety, substance use, overdoses and suicidal ideation. People of all ages who didn’t have symptoms prior to this year have reported that their mental health suffered as a result of an array factors – the pandemic and its impact on communities, health concerns, isolation, economic anxiety and the presidential election.

Our team at Mental Health First Aid, an evidence-based program that has trained more than 2.5 million individuals in recognizing signs of mental illness and substance use, recently shared helpful tips people can use to cope with the mental and emotional challenges they face this time of year. And our Practice Improvement team, which works closely with our 3,326 member organizations, also put their heads together and developed thoughtful strategies.

They all agree that it’s important to do what makes you happy.

In addition, write down the activities you enjoy on small pieces of paper and place them in a container. When you’re feeling down, pick an activity from the container.

Work hard to stay connected. Pick up the phone. Your voice may help someone as much as their voice helps you. Drop someone a handwritten note.

Recognize that it’s okay not to feel okay. Acknowledge your feelings. Allow yourself to grieve – it’s been a helluva year. Acknowledge the absence of normalcy – the isolation, disrupted routines and perhaps even the loss of a job or the loss of a loved one. Practice self-compassion. When you feel sad, honor that feeling. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to always be your best. Reflecting by journaling or meditating can help you remember what you’re grateful for or bring up a memory that makes you smile.

Our experts also agree that it’s important to remember your physical health. Practice wellness. Keep up the healthy habits – eating healthy foods, engaging in physical activity and getting plenty of sleep. Don’t let the holidays become a culinary free-for-all. Overindulgence can add to stress and guilt and often can affect one’s overall health and wellness.

Don’t overschedule yourself. Learn to say no. Saying “yes” when you should say “no” can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you cannot participate in every project or activity. Try to manage stress before it manages you. If it’s not possible to say “no,” try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.

That also means you should take some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm. And consider spending a few minutes outside each day.

Despite our best efforts, any of us can reach our tipping point.

If you feel yourself experiencing sadness or anxiety for an extended period, ask for professional help. Talk to your primary care physician or a mental health professional for additional information and support. Support groups, faith communities and peer counselors can also be helpful places for support. Leaning on your trusted friends is the most powerful way to feel better.

Don’t let fear ever stop you from reaching out.

Recognize that others may need your support. Be gentle and kind in your expectations of yourself and others. Offer support and help by providing information and resources if you notice someone close to you struggling. Give reassurance by empathizing with their experiences, offering emotional support and providing mental health resources.

Offering support may require setting aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. Be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. They could be experiencing anxiety as a result of the pandemic.

Many of us struggle this time of year, but resources are available.

If you want to provide help, Mental Health First Aid can provide you with the training to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders.

If you’re in need of help, there are many resources intended to help people address their mental illness, including:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for free 24/7 support. Call 1-888-6289454 for support in Spanish.
  • Crisis Text Line: Text “MHFA” to 741741 for free 24/7 crisis counseling.
  • Lifeline Crisis Chat: Visit crisischat.org to talk online with crisis centers around the United States.
  • Mental Health First Aid. Read about training here.
  • The Trevor Project: Call 866-488-7386 or text “START” to 678678 for mental health support specialized for the LGBTQI community.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline: Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.

This holiday, focusing on your own wellbeing and treating others with compassion may be the best gifts you can give.