By JAYMIE L. WHITE
Special to the Appalachian
BAY ST. GEORGE – The holiday season brings joy and happiness to people all around the world. But for individuals struggling with loss or their own mental health, it can prove to be a time of additional anxiety and stress.
Mary King, Program Coordinator for the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) NL – Western Region says that while it is a time to be with our families, we have to understand that not everyone has positive experiences.
“During the holidays, we often gravitate towards the positive thoughts of family and friend get-togethers, food, presents, visits with people we don’t normally get the opportunity to see on a regular basis and enjoy those times and create everlasting memories,” said King. “With this said, it is also important to keep in mind that there are many individuals and families who won’t be having the same experiences. It is important for people to understand that creating a safe and nonjudgmental atmosphere, whether it is a public environment or through social media, helps break down barriers and reduce the stigma of mental health illnesses.”
Keith Muise, Mental Health Advocate and creator of the 80’s Summer Camp initiative that is aimed at spreading positivity and promoting mental health awareness, said mental health is one of the ‘silent killers’.
“It’s like the heart disease of the mental aspect of life,” said Muise. “It can be chipping away at you for years and you don’t really realize how large of a burden the struggles that you’re dealing with are, until, at some point, that burden is going to get too heavy if you don’t acknowledge it.”
Muise said the stigma attached to mental health is a barrier that needs to be broken down.
“Once you start to talk about something, you get to understand it a little better, and when you understand something more than you can digest it, process the information about that struggle in your life. The foundation of it is to make it so easy to talk about that it’s like saying ‘I had the cold,’ said Muise. “Mental health has been so taboo for so many years and we need to get it to the point where you can say, ‘I was just too stressed out, work was killing me all week and I needed time to myself,’ and people respond with ‘I’ve been there. That’s cool.’ That’s the area we need to get this in to so that we can instill that in the next generation that’s growing up.”
King believes there are numerous ways to overcome this stigma.
“Spreading awareness through activities, events, programs, and educational training will provide a better understanding in the difference of mental health and mental health illness. By providing these opportunities to community, schools, organizations, and individuals we can build a stronger, more accessible foundation for supports and services offered. It then, in turn, allows for proper supports to be delivered,” said King.
King said this year is especially difficult for individuals struggling with their mental health because of the prolonged pandemic, and the upcoming holiday season only exacerbates it. Statistics are showing increased substance use and reports of violence, as well as stress surrounding food security and finances.
“This isn’t limited to certain ages or populations. It can impact a person at any age,” said King. “At CMHA, we are seeing more and more requests for support in these areas. Our partnering organizations are seeing the increased volume of requests as well.”
Muise said the holidays can be like a double-edged sword.
“Christmas is so positive, but it can also be a memory trigger for a lot of people, and you can’t counter-balance those memories whether they are good or bad, because, the funny part is, sometimes good memories also make you sad – like when there are people you are missing or when people are flat-out alone during the holidays,” said Muise.
Muise said the added financial stresses brought on by Christmas also have a significant impact.
“Beyond memories and lost loved ones and things like that, there are all the economic parts of it,” said Muise. “There are the people who can’t afford to go all out, wish they could help out a family member, there are so many feelings that can come from a time that is supposed to be so much fun. There are a lot of people waking up with no presents, with no family and friends, there’s so many social issues that hinder the full potential of a holiday. There are so many versions of Christmas that are going on, and not all of them are positive.”
King said it’s important for people, all year round and especially during the holidays, to know what resources are available to them and feel secure enough to access those resources so the struggles don’t escalate.
“If individuals are not receiving the appropriate and adequate services and supports, it creates an unsafe environment. One needs to have their basic needs met to sustain a healthy lifestyle. When they haven’t been met, it increases the chances of homelessness, substance use, self-harm, and criminalized activity,” said King. ”By being aware of these circumstances and what the community offers in regard to supports and services, you maybe that one person who can make a different in the individuals life.”