Being mindful of mental health needs at holidays

By Erika Wurst For Chronicle Media

(Graphic courtesy of CDC)

Snowflakes. Sledding. Santa. Shopping. Stress.

The holiday season brings with it plenty of things, and “stress” is one word that is usually lumped in with the lot. Much like gloomy weather and overcast skies, stress is hard to avoid this time of year.

“There is a lot of mental duress on people, specifically during the holiday season,” said Dr. Ammal Tokars, of the Kendall County Health Department. “Even if people don’t have a history of mental health issues, a lot of people will say they feel more duress this season, whether it’s clinical, or just a feeling.”

For those prone to mental health issues it is important to be able to recognize signs, feelings and have a plan of action to ward them off.

Tokars said that since the year 2000, the suicide rate among adults has increased by 34 percent.

“That’s really shocking,” she said. “Mental health needs and substance abuse struggle is happening on every street and on every block and neighborhood. These are our brothers and sisters living among us.”

At the Kendall County Health Department, the number one reason people are being treated for mental health issues is because of depression. Heroin, cocaine, alcohol and marijuana abuse also rank high on the list.

“There are endless issues revolving around these struggles of mental health,” Tokars said. “It’s here, it’s everywhere.”

College students are home for the holidays and according to new research published in the Depression and Anxiety journal, more than 20 percent of college students experienced stressful events in the past year that were associated with mental health problems, including harming themselves and suicidal thoughts or attempts.

Dr. Laura Chang, a child psychiatrist with Advocate Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., said that some of the most common reasons college students seek help from a mental health expert are academic stress, relationship concerns, conflict with their family or social group or identity issues.

“However, triggers that are often underappreciated but frequently play a large role in feelings of stress or depression include substance abuse, shape or weight concerns, lack of structure and a feeling of not having a clear direction moving forward,” said Chang.

Parents of college students should try to be receptive and nonjudgmental. Dr. Chang recommends parents leave openings for important conversations such as those about sexuality, substance abuse and future goals, without pushing the topics.

“Make sure your child always knows that you love them and will help them, no matter what life transitions occur,” Chang said.

The Kendall County Health Department has rolled out a program to help residents recognize the signs of mental health duress, and gather resources to be able to point someone who is struggling in the right direction to receive necessary help.

Two of the department’s Behavior Health staff members have become certified instructors of Mental Health First Aid. The eight-hour course, which will take place on Feb. 15, 2019 cost $20, but its benefits could be priceless.

“Those in need of mental health services often do not get them until it is too late,” an advertisement for the training states. “Just as CPR helps even those without clinical training assist in an individual having a heart attack, Mental Health First Aid prepares participants to interact with a person experiencing a mental health crisis.”

Participants will learn a five-step action plan that will guide them through the process of reaching out to those in need, and offering appropriate support.

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For those who are struggling themselves this holiday season, Tokars offered up three important tips to remain grounded and mindful, and avoid letting stress get the best of us.

  1. Anticipate the duress of the holiday season.

Whether you’ve experienced a loss this year, are struggling with money, relationships or just the stress of being a good host, it’s important to recognize that theses stressors are likely to creep in and potentially wreak mental health havoc around the holidays.

“To anticipate this is very helpful,” Tokars said. “We can be more mindful and do our second thing on the list, which is to attach meaning to the holiday.”

  1. Make the holiday meaningful.

“It’s not about making the holiday fancy. It’s not about entering into all of the social norms that go on around the holiday…the shopping, the buying, the parties,” Tokars said. “It’s about making the holiday meaningful for each of us.”

She said it’s about simplifying and then trying to practice that throughout the year.

If someone experienced a terrible loss, the holidays are often difficult. Tokars suggests using the holiday to honor positive memories of that person and give the season meaning.

  1. Practice self-care.

“The antithesis of what should happen is self-care,” Tokars said. “Often, we are tempted to do the very opposite. We indulge too much, we’re too busy, and we don’t get enough sleep. We’re not eating well, we’re drinking more that we should. Practicing physical self-care can really help with the stress. We are able to be more mindful of the meaning we should attach to the holiday.”

Tokars said these three skills are good to practice year-round. New job? New baby? New relationship? New loss?

“Let me anticipate the stress of this, get myself ready and inoculate myself with self-care,” she said.

For those interested in learning more about mental health resources, or participating in the Kendall County Mental Health First Aid training, contact the health department at 630-553-9100.

Advocate Heatlthcare News contributed to this story