As many experience a drastically different holiday season away from loved ones, those in the mental health field are advising communities to find ways to stay connected virtually while prioritizing some form of self-care.
“Keep in mind this isn’t forever and Christmas will probably look a lot more normal next year so this year, take time to change traditions,” said Joe Gutierez, a therapist with One Life Counseling Center in San Carlos.
Starting with Thanksgiving, the holidays have traditionally been a time of both happiness and heightened stress, said Gutierez, noting that many hold varying views on the holidays. While some look forward to the customary gatherings and gift giving, others harbor negative feelings and memories.
Shane Young, the programs and operations manager with the Mental Health Association of San Mateo County, said the holidays for those with severe mental illness are especially difficult. The pandemic has forced communities to isolate for safety but many of the nonprofit’s clients, who’ve struggled with homelessness, addiction and mental illness, have had strained relationships with their families in nonpandemic years.
“This time is typically challenging for our clients because they don’t have family in the area or burned those bridges a long time ago,” said Young. “It’s normally a tough time in general.”
Now well into the pandemic, Young said staff is making more house calls than normal as clients pull away from services and self-isolate. Moments of crisis are escalating quicker than usual too, he said, and referrals to mental health support have also increased.
Similarly, Gutierez said the number of clients he sees weekly has risen from 20 in a normal year to 30 during the pandemic and the increase is true for his colleagues as well. Referrals for mental health support were up by 200% in November at One Life, he said, and December appears to be tracking comparably.
And while cooler winter months often lead to increased feelings of stress, depression and anxiety, nine sustained months of COVID-19 have compounded those responses. Gutierez said his clients have expressed experiencing lower levels of energy, motivation and difficulties focusing and sleeping, adding that those feelings are being experienced by everyone this season.
Raising concern for people typically enthusiastic about celebrations, particularly Latino communities whose traditions center around gatherings, Gutierez said sustained separation has worn people thin.
“These are people who celebrate, relish and enjoy the holidays and they’ve hit a wall. Thanksgiving was difficult and the anticipation of not much of a Christmas is difficult,” said Gutierez, adding that family units are also stressed with safely adapting traditions while their lives have gone fully remote. “There’s burnout in families.”
Young noted the nonprofit’s holiday efforts will look different this year, opting to provide clients with traditional comfort food in place of hosting its annual holiday party which brought in crowds of up to 500 people.
Still, Young and Gutierez said news of the vaccine is reason to stay optimistic and, in many cases, stressful holiday gatherings can be replaced by more relaxing plans.
While officials have routinely advised against in-person gatherings, County Health spokesman Preston Merchant encouraged neighbors to check on each other over the phone, highlighting the county’s concern for the mental health risks of isolation.
Gutierez recommended residents host virtual happy hours with loved ones or organize to prepare similar dishes like cookies with friends. Screen time can be a contributing factor to depleted mental health, he said, but when used for socializing it can boost social connectivity.
On a personal level, he said people should try to follow a routine of waking up and getting dressed around the same time, fitting in time to meditate and exercise regularly.
“Try something you really like to do whether that’s an activity or hobby or meditation. Meditation really helps a lot of people and those are the starting points,” said Gutierez, adding that reflecting on the past, creating a gratitude list and setting goals for the future could also be constructive.
Those feeling severe and more sustained symptoms of depression, anxiety and fatigue should reach out to a friend or personal care physician.
“The most important thing for anybody going through this is to talk about it. Acknowledge and explore how you feel,” said Gutierez. “This isn’t forever and we can find ways to adapt.”
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