While the holidays are hyped as a time for tidings of comfort and joy, there are those who tend to get a little down during the Yuletide season and then those who slip into severe depression.
But just what is the difference between the two and when should someone get help? The Nation turned to Gerald Kroetsch, a psychologist who works for the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, for advice
Nation: While the holiday season is supposed to be all about joy, why can some feel more down this time of year?
Kroetsch: You have to look at why there is so much pressure and why we get caught up in it. There are three main reasons behind it. Relationships are the first as there are all kinds of different things that happen there, conflicted relationships and being alone.
The second reason is the finances as we spend too much and then there is just the straight physical and psychological demand of the holidays as it is a very charged time. There is a lot of running around, whether it is shopping, cooking, going to activities or having people over, all of these things are very demanding and so there is an extra stress load to carry at this time.
Then there are those who may have lost someone over the course of the past year and so Christmastime may be more difficult as it is usually family-oriented. If we have lost someone, some of those acute feelings can come back. It’s very appropriate to have those feelings and to acknowledge them, let them be there and work through them. This can however make things more difficult and this is a reason as to why this season gives us a lot of pressure and taxes our capacities to manage. It is a taxing time and if we have any vulnerability, in terms of sadness or depressive feelings, it is just going to add up and make it more difficult.
N: What about the lack of sunlight that happens at this time of the year, how does this affect people’s moods?
K: A lot of people emphasize the reduction of light as a cause for depression. The shortest day of the year is December 21, after which it starts to grow by one minute each day and eventually we come out of it. Just going outside if there is sunlight is beneficial as is one of those full spectrum lamps.
This can play a significant role as some people are affected more by it than others. Sometimes taking a vitamin D supplement can be a good way to replace the sun during the winter.
N: What are the signs that someone might be depressed?
K: Some people just get what we call the blues, which is a mild kind of a temporary mood drop, but it doesn’t last very long.
Because of the stress of Christmas and our hopes for the holidays, we want everything to be perfect and everyone to be happy. Thinking that way isn’t realistic, so we really have to look at what our expectations are.
Between the blues and depression, the latter is more extensive and includes a very depressed mood, not a lot of energy, a lack of joy in life and a lack when it comes to both sleep and a desire to eat.
With depression you get the three “nesses” – hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness. These things are all enduring in the sense that they have to be there for a couple of weeks before you can talk about a major depression. Your functioning also becomes impaired in the sense that you have trouble thinking rationally and your memory suffers. You can really exacerbate these conditions with lack of sleep, excessive drinking and holiday-related stress.
This is the difference between a temporary mood drop and a serious depression.
N: At what point should you really be concerned?
K: Let’s look at what you can do to deal with that stress. People don’t want to get exhausted. If we get exhausted or over-booked, we are running all over the place all of the time, we get cranky and irritable and conflict just grows from there. Getting adequate sleep and eating properly are basic ways to improve things. This means avoiding too many sugars and carbs, eating more protein, exercising and getting outside for 20 minutes per day. These things can be done on our own or with someone else that we really want to be happy with.
N: What about alcohol, what role does that play in this?
K: There is lots of incentive to drink more over the holidays as the alcohol is flowing. But alcohol is a depressant and is the last thing we need to manage our problems. It may give some of us temporary relief, but we end up feeling sadder or feeling sorrier for ourselves.
We are more impulsive and aggressive under the influence, and suicidal things can happen at that time and so there is a big caution on the drinking.
There’s a myth that suicides are more popular during the holiday season, but it isn’t true. In fact there are less. There are more actually during the spring or the summer.
There is more family around during the holidays and so there is more support. But if people are isolating themselves and are talking about suicide, these are the warning signs that you need to be closer to that person and ask them what is going on and if they need to talk to someone.
If you are worried about someone, you may want to listen to what they are saying and see if there is any kind of (suicidal) ideation or plan. Anybody can ask. The warning flag might also go up a bit more if the person has attempted suicide in the past or if someone close to them has committed suicide in the last year.
You need to be aware of this and also watch the person and stay with them and be in touch with them. You have to be aware and be with them. You can’t just pass them off.
If you want to explore it more, it will seem like this person has found the solution to their difficulties and all of a sudden they are much happier and more at peace. That is a thing that can be missed. They may also tend to give away their things in a way that they may be tidying up their own affairs.
You have to explore this kind of behaviour with them.
N: What can you or should you do if you suspect that this is going on with a loved one and you personally don’t feel equipped to deal with it?
K: This person will need to have some kind of assessment and this is usually done through the clinic or a psychologist can also do this (though there may not be one around during the holidays). A doctor or nurse can do a preliminary assessment and the police can also intervene to protect the person. There are the hospitals in both Chibougamau and Chisasibi that can get a lot of traffic for this and even a local minister or Elders can be helpful when someone is in need.
These are all resources and ones that you should not hesitate to contact if you or someone you care about is feeling down.