A Different Kind of Christmas: Mental Health

Christmas is ‘the most wonderful time of the year’. For many the thought of Christmas conjures up images of mince pies, mulled wine, sitting cosily around the fire; this is not the case for everyone. There are numerous reasons that someone might not look forward to Christmas – mental health problems can be a major one of them. The Gryphon explores Christmas from a different perspective.

According to NUS, one in five students consider themselves as having a mental illness. On average throughout their life, one in four people will experience mental health problems. However, it is important to note that it is not just sufferers who are affected. Mental illnesses affect so many more – all those who see their loved ones go through so much pain. Whilst this pain exists day-to-day, it can be exacerbated around Christmas. The holiday season is a time when so much emphasis is put upon joy and happiness that it hurts all the more to see your family or friends struggling.

This is a feeling that I am sadly familiar with – three years ago my sister spent Christmas in an eating disorder unit. The juxtaposition between the expected Christmas joy and the difficulties I saw her experiencing really hit home.

One of the aspects of Christmas that can make it even harder is the expectation to be happy. It is a time that everyone seemingly looks forward to – but for many it is just another day to get through. When every day is an uphill battle, spending a day surrounded by people pretending to be happy is something that many dread. The struggle to get out of bed becomes that much greater when you are dreading a day that everywhere and everyone is telling you that must enjoy. To deviate from the norm and to not conform to the holiday spirit is seen as abnormal and almost shameful. Additionally, the idea that you should be feeling happy and jolly causes you to think more about your own mood, feel like you are missing out, and may intensify any emotions that you may already be experiencing.

This pressure can become even greater when celebrations are spread over a series of days or weeks – the pressure to be ‘on’ all the time is exhausting. Mental illness generally causes sufferers to tire quickly – all your energy is put into staying functional and those days off when you can escape from real life are essential. However, when there is the demand to be on top form every day, any mental health problems you may already be experiencing can mount up quickly.

As somebody who suffers with anxiety, I can tell you that Christmas is not always an easy time. I love Christmas personally, but any worries or anxieties I do feel tend to get intensified. From seemingly superficial worries, such as buying presents or if there will be enough Yorkshire puddings, to those much larger – how my sister will function or family arguments – it can all get a bit overwhelming. I think this is a feeling common to many people, and it is certainly a dark side to the holiday season. It is as though everything has been put in a pressure cooker and slowly, the closer to Christmas it gets, the higher the temperature gets.

This disconnect between the ideal and the reality is particularly intensified for those suffering with eating disorders. The excesses of alcohol and food that so many long for make Christmas one of the most difficult times of the year for those suffering with or in recovery from an eating disorder. I know in my family talking about how much you have eaten has been an important ritual for Christmas dinner – but the discomfort it causes my sister is no longer worth it. Whilst for us, excessive eating is something to be proud of, for her it is a battle. Not only does the initial Christmas food present a challenge, but also the post-Christmas emphasis on diets, exercising, and generally losing weight means that this period of difficulty can last long past the twelve days of Christmas.

Whilst I would encourage you all to make the most of your Christmas, I also urge you to be mindful of those who find it more of a struggle. If you have relatives, friends, or neighbours who experience mental health problems, or even those who are alone, keep them in mind and make an effort to let them know how much you care about them. Let them know that if it all gets too much you are there to listen, or just to provide somewhere for them to hide away from it all for a bit. For you it might seem like nothing, but for someone else it can make their day.

Emma Healey

You can find information of ways to help others or yourself this Christmas time at www.mind.org.uk.

[Images: mentalhealthy.co.uk]

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