Christmas can be a wonderful time. For many, it’s a blur of parties and friends, mulled wine and glitzy dresses – and, inevitably, a few hangovers.
But it’s not always easy. For some, particularly those with mental health problems, Christmas can be a deeply troubling time: returning home to difficult family situations, feeling like you have to spend lots of money, being surrounded by alcohol, or being removed from social support structures can all impact on mental health.
“Christmas is one of the hardest times of the year for me,” Josie, 27, tells me. She has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and finds that the Christmas period often exacerbates her symptoms.
“I’m out all the time, which means I get no sleep, and also tend to drink too much – which everyone does at Christmas parties, obviously, but it can have a different effect on me.”
“It can also be hard to leave my network of friends in London to go back home with my parents; they’re not as understanding as my friends, so I can end up feeling a bit alienated.”
Lucy, 30, feels similarly: “As soon as I go home for Christmas I revert to the way I felt when I was a teenager. It brings up so much for me, no matter how nice a time I’m having with my family or how nice Christmas Day itself is.
“It just leaves me feeling really low.”
Lucy also struggles with an eating disorder – an additional problem during a period when so much of our time, energy and attention is focused on what’s on the dinner table.
“I manage my eating disorder pretty successfully the rest of the year,” she explains. “But the focus on food at Christmas can really trigger me. You’re expected to eat piles and piles of food… I just find it so hard to handle.”
Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, acknowledges that Christmas can be “a difficult time” for anyone living with mental illness.
“The stress and financial strain involved in Christmas, the pressure to indulge in food and drink and the feeling that we should all be enjoying ourselves, even if we don’t feel like it, can all impact on our mental well being,” he says.
But there are things you can do to help support someone, he adds.
“If you think somebody is acting differently, ask them if they are OK and let them know you’re happy to listen,” he says. “Sometimes just being able to talk to someone can be a huge relief, but it can also open doors to conversations about accessing professional support so you might, for example, offer to accompany your friend to see their GP if they’re nervous about going.”
Christmas is the ultimate party season – but feeling overwhelmed might cause friends to cancel events.
“Try not to be critical about this – they might be feeling incredibly anxious about socialising, and they may prefer opportunities to meet up that are lower key, perhaps with smaller groups involved,” Buckley says.
Being understanding about issues with food or drink is also key – if somebody declines a drink, for example, you should never push them to explain why.
“It could be for any number of reasons, but nobody should feel under pressure to disclose this,” Buckley says.
In summary? Check in with people and “listen in a non-judgemental way”.
“Simple conversations can be the starting point on the road to recovery.”