Difficult news locally and across the country this week dampened a generally cheery start to the holiday season.
If you’re spending time with loved ones and you notice someone not doing well, what’s the best thing to say? How can our words and actions extend beyond the holiday gathering?
“For many, this is the first holiday season that seems normal again, so expectations are very high. But the holidays are never perfect, as much as we would like them to be, so we should think about how to help ourselves and each other when we all need it,” said Dr. Robin Gurwitch, director of the Center for Child & Family Help in Chapel Hill and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University.
The News & Observer spoke to Gurwitch and Dr Crystal Schillerclinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at UNC, to learn more about how best to handle these situations during the holiday season.
Common signs of mental health issues
Generally, you can identify the signs of a mental health problem by noticeable changes in a person’s behavior, which may include:
Withdraw from social interactions and not be so talkative.
Or the other way around, talking a lot more than they usually do.
Drinking a lot more alcohol than usual.
Eat much less or much more.
“When I see these things, I wouldn’t comment on the behavior itself, like, ‘Oh, I see you’re not talking to anyone. But I would rather start by asking some general questions, like how is it going for you? How are you feeling today?” said Schiller.
“See what the person brings up, and if they’re open to a discussion, then you can ask more follow-up questions and understand what this tough time is like for them.”
If they’re not receptive to a conversation, you shouldn’t push it further, she said: ‘There’s nothing worse than feeling really bad and someone intruding. your things. You can contact them later.
How to help someone in difficulty during the holidays
Here’s how Schiller suggests you help a struggling loved one this holiday season:
• Find a quiet place to talk: Don’t have this conversation at the holiday table. Find a quiet moment and ask those big “How are you today?” questions to see if your loved one is interested in a conversation.
• Listen actively: Asking questions to paint a picture. If something difficult has happened in your loved one’s life, you can ask appropriate questions to learn more about the difficulties they are facing.
• Request an action step: Instead of saying “Is there anything I can do to help?” you can ask “what can I do to support you?” Make sure you hear their request and follow through.
If you are unable to help them, but you notice that they are struggling, you can talk to them to find out who else can be a source of support for them.
• Reach out the next day: You should do this both if your loved one was open to talking and if they weren’t. Let them know that you are thinking of them and that you are happy to spend time with them during the holidays.
“We don’t always know the little moments that make a difference in someone’s life,” Gurwitch said. “Just knowing someone cared about them and was thinking of them at the time.”
If You’re Struggling This Holiday Season, Do These Things
As we consider ways to help our loved ones who are going through a difficult time this holiday season, we should take time to reflect on how we are feeling and the ways we can feel supported. Here are some ways Gurwitch recommends checking in before these important days:
• Know that holidays are never perfect“We’ve all seen holiday movies. We know people don’t get along, food burns… that’s what makes us laugh. It’s the conflict of these movies that we watch every year,” she said. “Put aside your expectations that the vacation will be perfect. This will not be the case.
By managing expectations in advance, you won’t feel disappointed or guilty when the holidays don’t go as planned or if you recognize in advance that the holidays will be difficult for you this year.
• Establish a trusted friend: Take the time before holiday events to identify a trusted friend or family member that you can reach out to if things get tough. It can be helpful to establish a check-in time – if dinner is scheduled for 4 p.m., you might want to plan to text your trusted friend at 6 p.m.
“It doesn’t even have to be a phone call or sending a long text with updates on the day. He can send an emoji to update how you feel. Or a number on a scale of 1 to 10. But if you need to talk on the phone or FaceTime, make sure your friend will be there to help you ahead of time.
• Make room to cry, but know that experiencing the joy of the holidays is also perfectly fine.
“It’s okay to feel joy being together while grieving. Both emotions can be there at the same time. Don’t feel guilty about having a good time when you thought the holidays would only be there. difficult,” she said.
You can excuse yourself in a separate room or walk around the block if you start to get overwhelmed.
• Help someone else, if you wish: Sometimes, if you feel stressed or have feelings that are difficult to manage, you can help yourself by helping someone else. You can offer to do something for the holiday gathering or you can find an organization to volunteer with.
If lending a helping hand is too overwhelming and you need mental health resources to help you through this difficult time, that’s more than ok.
How to offer mental health support to friends, family
If a loved one shows signs of a mental health problem or asks you for help, here’s how MentalHealth.gov’s “For Friends and Family” guide suggests you offer support:
Are they getting help? Find out if the person is getting the care they need or want. If not, connect them to resources for help.
Show Compassion: Express concern and support.
Help is available: Remind your loved one that help is available and that mental health issues can be treated.
Actively listen: Ask questions, listen to ideas and be responsive when the topic of mental health issues comes up.
Tell them you care: Reassure your loved one that you care about them.
Give a hand: Offer to help your loved one with their daily tasks.
Extend an invitation: Include your loved one in your plans. Keep inviting them without being intrusive, even if they resist your invitations.
Speak openly about mental health: Educate others to understand mental health issues and treat those who struggle with dignity and compassion.
Be respectful: Treating people with mental health issues with respect, compassion and empathy.
Mental health conversation starters with friends, family
If you need help starting a conversation about mental health issues, you can try these top questions from MentalHealth.gov’s “For Friends and Family Members” guide. Be sure to actively listen to your loved one’s responses.
I’ve been worrying about you. Can we talk about what you’re going through? If not, who are you comfortable talking to?
What can I do to help you talk about your problems with your parents or with someone else who is responsible and cares about you?
How else can I help you?
I am someone who cares and wants to listen. What do you want me to know about how you feel?
Who or what has helped you deal with similar issues in the past?
Sometimes talking to someone who has had a similar experience helps. Do you know of others who have experienced these kinds of issues that you can talk to?
It looks like you are going through a tough time. How can I help you find help?
How can I help you find more information about mental health issues?
I’m concerned for your safety. Have you thought about hurting yourself or others?
When talking about mental health issues:
Know how to connect people to help.
Speak at a level appropriate for a person’s age and level of development.
Discuss the topic when and where the person feels safe and comfortable.
Watch for reactions during the discussion and slow down or back off if the person becomes confused or seems upset.
MentalHealth.gov has a long list of resources available for anyone in need. They have guides for parents, family members, children, and more in hopes of opening up conversations about mental health. Find these guides at MentalHealth.gov/talk.
North Carolina Mental Health Resources
Mental health resources — particularly in the midst of the pandemic, and even more so as the holiday season approaches — have been stretched thin. The N&O previously put together a list for anyone in need of help.
Find resources for immediate help and specific groups for people in and around the Triangle at newsobserver.com/news.
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