Just about anyone who does the Christmas thing knows the kind of stress the holiday can bring on. Whether it’s from shopping as if it were an Olympic event, the inability to do as much from a lack of financial resources as you’d like or the steady stream of social gatherings between family and friends, the season’s pressures can result in a bad case of the holiday blues.
“It’s a normal crisis time,” says Kahnawake-based psychologist Suzy Goodleaf, who also works for Public Health in Mistissini. “It is a trigger time.”
Goodleaf says the holidays can spark a range of extreme emotions that can result in depression if left unchecked. “It’s a time where the ideal Christmas is supposed to be happening. The whole family is supposed to be loving and caring, singing Christmas carols and everything is wonderful.”
So it’s normal to try and recreate a Christmas reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. We invest whatever we have in the holiday – financially, emotionally and spiritually.
But what happens when reality doesn’t fit with our image of a perfect holiday? Says Goodleaf: “When you realize that you don’t really have enough money to do that or when you realize that the family that you thought you had isn’t exactly the familywho would be in the commercials, then it hits you.”
That reality can sometimes generate a severe depression, but for others the mere threat of gathering the whole family together is what causes their emotional devastation.
“When people have trauma in their backgrounds, it’s a time when issues of, say, sexualabuse, will come to the forefront because all of a sudden you have to be in the same room as the abuser,” observes Goodleaf.
For others it’s a matter of experiencing latent grief issues, especially if it’s their first Christmas without a loved one.
“If your father died in June, Christmas is a time when you will feel it the most because it’s the time when you would have all been together, so you’re recalling that he is not here,” says Goodleaf.
“It’s not that these things shouldn’t happen or feelings shouldn’t be there, but if you don’t acknowledge them, if you don’t process them, they can become depression.”
Other people try to evade their negative feelings by turning to the bottle, with catastrophic results. “When drinking increases, problems increase as well,” she says.
The bad signs
For someone already having a hard time, the holidays can have either a negative or positive impact. But when someone’s behaviour changes dramatically, it may be a sign that they may be depressed, explains Goodleaf.
Acknowledging someone’s pain can be a wonderful help
Some major indicators of depression are when someone who normally has a healthy appetite suddenly won’t eat or vice versa, or when someone’s sleeping patterns also quickly change, these are signs that they may be showing signs of anxiety. If the individual is expressingfeelings of hopelessness, despair and speaks of suicide, this is a red flag warning that this person needs help and fast.
If someone presents these behaviours, Goodleaf says the best thing to do is talk to him or her. She suggests saying things like, “You know, I’ve noticed that you are not coming out of the house very much, is there something wrong? Is there something I can do to help?”
Goodleaf also says that just being with someone in distress is already helpful because most people don’t notice. Simply acknowledging someone’s pain or misery can be a wonderful help.
It’s common knowledge that the suicide rate jumps during the holiday season. So if you think someone is feeling suicidal, Goodleaf strongly advises that you ask. “People are often afraid to ask if someone is suicidal, thinking that if they ask that it means that the person will do it. In fact that is not the case at all,” she says.
Other tips to beat the blues
The holidays often change people’s schedules, affecting how they eat, sleep and drink. Goodleaf recommends keeping as normal routine as possible for somebody who is already struggling.
She also stresses the importance of eating and sleeping well and exercising even if this might be the opposite of what a depressed or anxious person might be inclined to do. Avoiding alcohol if you are in distress is a major way to keep from delving deeper into a funk. “It’s okay for family members to say, ‘You are feeling kind of down, maybe it’s is not such a good idea that you drink so much.’ Even if that is hard for people to say to family,” says Goodleaf.
Though there are a lot of “dry” events in many of the Cree communities this does not necessarily mean that a big dance is going to be an appropriate place for a depressed individual. If a large social gathering is outside of someone’s comfort zone, pushing him or her to attend could also be detrimental as it can bring on a lot of anxiety.
“It’s important to reach out to people in a way that they feel comfortable,” notes Goodleaf. Instead, “you can just check on them and call them through the night and see howthey are doing and let them know that you are thinking about them.”
What to do in case of an emergency
Most communities have an on-call social worker, but when those people cannot be reached and someone is really in crisis, Goodleaf advises that the police be called in. Of course if you are someone who struggles during the season, she suggests that “you make sure you have your own support system built in already or check in if there is somebody like a social worker or psychologist that you can talk with.” A local minister or traditional healer, regardless of religious affiliation, is always willing to help.
Give of yourself
On the other hand, if you are feeling particularly good this holiday season, nominate yourself to the community to be a listener and support your neighbour. “It would be good to talk to the people at Public Health Office at this time and make a recommendation to have a list of people who might want to volunteer to be a support to other people in need.”
Suzy Goodleaf can be reached at her Kahnawake office at 450-635-5108 for those seeking help in the Mistissini area.