For many, the holidays are an enjoyable time to spend with friends and family celebrating the season, but for others it can be a time of stress, loneliness and disruption.
For those struggling with anxiety or depression, the holiday season is particularly difficult as high expectations of social and financial success can add a great deal of stress to an already chaotic time of year, said Dr. Vint Blackburn, the assistant medical director of Resolve Crisis Services and an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Psychiatry.
“Around the holidays, there are all kinds of stressors that affect people with depression,” he said. “Expectations are so high. We think we should all be having a good time, enjoying ourselves and spending time with family.”
For those who struggle around the holidays or have no one to spend them with, these added expectations can make it all the more difficult. Gift giving traditions also can be stressful, especially for those with little or no extra money to spend.
“Poverty is a huge issue that drives some of the symptoms around the holiday season too,” Blackburn said.
With the social expectation to buy gifts for family and loved ones, those struggling financially can experience feelings of inadequacy if they can't buy their children or other loved ones the big gifts they believe are expected of them, Blackburn said, adding that it's important to shift the emphasis from purchasing gifts to spending time with loved ones. “The holidays are about being together with family, and not about things,” he said.
Still, Blackburn said it's important to remember that spending time together does not mean that depression will necessarily go away. Depression is complicated, often acting more like a chronic illness than many expect.
“It's an illness. People have this idea that depression is only about your circumstances,” Blackburn said. “You have people who say, 'You shouldn't feel that way; you shouldn't be depressed,' and that's like saying, 'You shouldn't have diabetes.'”
People don't choose to struggle with depression, he said.
“It's not weakness,” he said. “It's not a lifestyle choice.”
This is important to understand for those struggling with depression as well as for friends and family looking to be supportive, he said.
“Validate the emotions, and say, 'We still want you to be with us,'” Blackburn said.
For those struggling, he recommends reducing time spent alone at home, whether that means being with friends and family or, if that's not an option, getting out and doing something away from home.
“One of the things you'll see a lot of is movie theaters will be open,” Blackburn said. “People go to movies. They'll try and distract.”
But if possible, he recommends being with friends and family, which he said is more beneficial.
“If you got those things, go and be with family members,” he said.
Additionally, there are many organizations and groups working to support those struggling during the holiday season and year-round.
Blackburn recommended looking into such organizations as the Salvation Army or the Center for Community Resources in Butler as well as reaching out to churches or nearby charities for material or emotional support.
“There's lots of things going on to help people,” he said.
Those interested in such resources can visit The Center for Community Resources' website at ccrinfo.org.
For those with friends and family who are struggling with loneliness or depression, Blackburn said the best thing to do is to spend time with them.
“What we want people to do is reach out to help and pay attention to your loved ones,” he said.
Be on the lookout for red flags — for example, if a friend or family member seems to be isolating themselves or acting strangely — Blackburn explained. If you believe that a loved one might need help, contact them, he said.
“Just do it,” he said. “If your loved one was lying on the floor having a heart attack, would you give a second thought to call the ambulance? But when someone is dealing with depression, which can lead to death ... we assume for some reason that we're not going to reach out for help in that situation.”