It may be the season to be jolly, but depression is not uncommon this time of year. Mental health agencies provide tips and counseling to ease the holiday depression that for some is inevitable. For many state residents holiday depression will carry the added burden of post-hurricane stress.
The Gulf Coast Mental Health Agency in Biloxi is always visible and active in the community but is making a special effort to get the word out this year. “Holiday depression is compounded this year,” said Dr. Steve Barrilleaux, a psychologist and director of the adult outreach program. “We encourage people to look for the good around them. I try to remind myself of all the kindness I’ve seen since the hurricane. There’s been an intense response from people everywhere.”
Barrilleaux, who’s been with the agency for 10 years, offers tips for coping with holiday depression this year.
• Don’t be overwhelmed by your losses. Look at what you have.
• It’s not a good idea to rely on alcohol.
• Spend time with family and friends, mending relationships and being open to becoming reacquainted.
• If you can leave the devastated area, go someplace where the Christmas spirit is more obvious.
• Talk with pastors and friends.
• Consult a physician if you have trouble sleeping.
“Those who are already depressed become more so during the holidays and in a lot of cases need to see doctors. There are medications that can help,” he said. “Because of the hurricane we’re seeing a lot of uncertainty, helplessness and frustration. A lot comes out in anger, irritability and personality changes.”
He also said alcohol use and substance abuse have grown on the Coast since the storm. For the month of October, DUI arrests tripled in Harrison County.
“It’s an escape thing, and people often turn to that in the holidays, too,” he added. “Those who can leave the area should spend the holidays with family and friends elsewhere or take a trip. Do something different.”
For Barrilleaux, something different was digging a hole outside his FEMA trailer for his Christmas tree since there’s not enough room inside for a tree. He also recommends doing something for others and sticking with routines as much as possible. “Anything that you can do to re-establish that sense of control will help,” he said.
Janet McQueen, marketing director for Hancock Medical Center in Bay St. Louis, lost her home and everything in it. Still, she says she’s seen more good in the human heart in the past three months than ever before.
“I have seen more compassion and love from total strangers than I would have ever seen. Kindness has poured out from everywhere,” she said. “For the holidays, most people are not trying to re-create the Christmases they always had but are doing temporary traditions. Many are flying to other places and are going to relatives’ houses this year.”
Suzanne Russell, education coordinator for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) in Mississippi, says that contrary to myth, the holidays are not the highest time for suicides.
“The highest time for suicides is spring and fall. Bipolar people have more difficulty at that time of year, and we don’t know why,” she said. “By the year 2020, depression will be the most commonly diagnosed medical condition of women and children.”
She says depression is much undiagnosed in males, mainly because they tend to self-medicate or vent depression through anger and hostility. That’s why the rate of suicide is higher in males.
“They are less likely to go to a doctor to get help, but they might go with a physical ailment,” Russell said. “There is still a stigma about depression. Some people can’t admit they’re depressed, but they can say they have a stomach ache.”
Russell says NAMI’s message is that depression or holiday blues are not shame disorders and are not due to character flaws, bad parenting or laziness.
Unfortunately, there are still those who think a depressed person can just snap out of it or get over it.
“The good news is that depression and holiday blues are treatable and people can get better,” she added.
The lack of sunlight during winter months contributes to feelings of depression in some people, according to Dr. Judith O’Jile, a neuropyschologist with the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. She sees a lot of depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) this time of year. Exposure to bright light — phototherapy — and anti-depression therapy can help in these cases.
December is designated as Seasonal Depression Awareness Month. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is offering information and resources about SAD among the special monthly features on the National Mental Health Information Center Web site at www.mentalhealth.samhsa.gov.
O’Jile says most people have idealized ideas about what should happen during the holiday time, and if things don’t meet the criteria, they feel deprived. “We want it to be like it was when we were children,” she said. “There is no one solution but a whole array of things that can help.”
She recommends being with friends, volunteering to help those less fortunate, enjoying religious experiences, limiting drinking and trying to change expectations. “Things do not have to always be the same. Different is fine,” she said. “We don’t have to do everything. We must decide what the most important things are and do them.”
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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