It’s the most wonderful time of the year…. but not for everyone
Most people think of Christmas as a time of happiness, celebration and spending time with family and friends. I certainly look forward to Christmas every year for some much-needed rest, fun, and festivities with my family. However, I am also acutely aware that for many young people, especially those who are finding life tough-going, the Christmas period can add significantly to their challenges. For them, it can be anything but wonderful. Studies show that depression rates increase for many at Christmas, and suicide rates often show an increase at Christmas. One recent American survey of young people showed that 45% of respondents dreaded the festive season.
Most would agree that Christmas can be a challenging time for everyone’s stress levels, with all the planning, organising and shopping to do. It can be even harder for those with low levels of resilience and poor mental health and wellbeing. Most people will have emotional and mental health challenges at some time in their lives, and for at least a quarter of the population, this will develop into a diagnosable mental illness such as stress, anxiety, depression or psychosis. At a time when most people are busy celebrating, some young people will simply be unable to do so because of their emotional and mental state. Christmas can increase their sense of isolation, or for those with a past bereavement, their sense of loss.
Unfortunately, some young people will turn to alcohol and substance abuse, self-harm or other risky behaviour as a way of coping during the festive break, and unchecked, these can become dangerous habits with ongoing negative impacts for their physical health and life chances. Those living in families who have been hardest hit by the reduction in support services in the recent period of austerity will be under added pressures at this time of year; young people can find it very difficult to cope.So, if you are the parent, carer or friend of a young person who is struggling and who might find Christmas an extra challenge this year, the following might help you to help them:
1. Try to set a realistic expectation for Christmas and family gatherings and avoid the ‘perfect’ representation of Christmas pushed by the media and advertisements. Encourage the family, friends and young person to be in the present and enjoy each moment as best as they can. This should help avoid disappointment, frustration and arguments, and to keep the tension low.
2. Watch out for unusual or abnormal behaviour in a young person, such as withdrawal, being down for long periods, increased anxiety, or panic attacks. Try to help them restore calm by giving them time away from noisy, busy places and concentrating on quiet and being in the moment. The following website has some fun mindfulness activities for young people: positivepsychologyprogram.com.
3. Encourage the young person to talk about their feelings and to seek help from the statutory and voluntary organisations out there to support them, especially if you are really worried about them:
- ChildLine are available all over the Christmas holiday on 0800 1111 or online at www.childline.org.uk
- Call The Samaritans on 116 123 and online at www.samaritans.org.
- The new HeadStart Wolverhampton Online Support and Guidance platform links to a wide range of resources and organisations which can help: www.headstartonline.co.uk/support.
4. Discourage the young person from making unhelpful and inaccurate social comparisons with others. This will avoid a negative impact on self-esteem through a likely mistaken belief that everyone else is having a better time, better gifts, more fun and a better life. Social media can often encourage this distorted view of others’ lives and can lead to self-image issues or feeling inadequate.
5. Encourage the young person to get involved with helping others through local charities and worthwhile causes, or to attend organised community activities. Encourage them to do some physical activity as the connection between physical health and wellbeing is very strong.
6. Remember that some young people might find the most challenging time to be after Christmas, in the period known as the post-Christmas blues. Seasonal Affected Disorder might also come into play so it is worth bearing this in mind once the festivities are over.
Listen to the young people in your life and try to support them in making the right decisions for their own well-being …. and if you’re a parent or carer, don’t forget to take care of yourself too.