Mental Health at the Holidays: ‘It’s OK to Not Be OK’

By Julie Halm

Melinda C. DuBois

For many, the holidays are merry and bright. They are a time of celebration and community and all things joyful.

But for a very significant number of people, this season can be one that brings on or exacerbates existing mental health struggles, according to Melinda DuBois, executive director of Mental Health Advocates, located on Broadway in Buffalo.

According to DuBois, there are many reasons historically that the holidays have been a challenge for people and there are also some reasons which have surfaced locally and globally in the past several years.

“The holidays can bring up trauma especially around childhood traumas and when your family is not intact or has been a source of struggle for you, the holidays can also be a struggle,” she said.

DuBois also noted that for many, any sense of loneliness or isolation may be heightened around this time of year as individuals are flooded with images and messages, both in media and real life, of others gathering together.

While these factors have been consistent over a great number of years, DuBois said that this year, many Buffalonians may experiences some mental health struggles as we recall last year’s events.

“For many, many people, it is going to be a struggle this year,” she said. “There’s the fact that last year during Christmas, we were experiencing the blizzard and watching people die in their cars and struggling with a loss of power and that can be a source of struggle for people this year.”

DuBois also noted that after multiple holiday seasons of COVID isolation in recent years, some families may be joining back together in the last holiday season or two without everyone present due to losses of family members or other loved ones.

“For many people when they get together with their family, there’s somebody missing, so the holidays can also bring back how things have changed or people who are no longer in your life and that can be really sad,” she said.

While these struggles exist for so many, there are an equally large number of ways that people can help to reduce stigma and assist those around them who may have a hard time this holiday season. The first, she said, is to acknowledge that mental health struggles are not only real, but common and not something to be ashamed of.

DuBois, who is also the chairwoman of the Anti-Stigma Coalition, said that while she feels that the stigma around mental health has decreased over the past several years, unfortunately, mental health issues have also become more prevalent.

“We are facing an unprecedented mental health crisis,” she said. “I think it’s everything, really. It’s COVID, which was pretty much a shock to everybody and really took away some of our stability and I think a lot of people are feeling that uncertainty; there’s also this political rhetoric which can be really aggressive and angry; there’s wars going on throughout the world; so all of these things contribute to this increase.”

According to DuBois, statistics show that roughly one in four people have a mental health struggle and those numbers are on the rise. While some people might feel that they don’t know anyone experiencing these challenges, particularly at this time of year and thus don’t need to help create a feeling of safety for people who might be in that position, DuBois noted that is statistically nearly impossible.

“While the statistics are one in four people have a mental health struggle,” said DuBois, “The way we talk about it is that about five in five people know somebody in their life who is struggling and if you think there are no people in your life who are struggling, you’re just not hearing them.”

To end the stigma and help those who need it at this or any other time of year, the first step, according to DuBois, is to acknowledge that it’s OK not to be OK.

“Having those feelings is completely fine,” she said, adding that those who are struggling should not aim to hide their feelings and should find a trusted person who they can reach out to.

On the other end of things, it is important for people to create a safe space for those around them to openly express those feelings.

“Sometimes it’s hard to put yourself into somebody else’s shoes and so if you’re able to just listen to the person who is struggling and hear what their issues are that’s really the best thing you can do…is to be right there with them and it’s not a matter of cheering them up or telling them they should be happy, that doesn’t help it never does but just to sit with that person,” she said.

To have a broader impact, those looking to help can volunteer at organizations that create a sense of community and belonging as well as security for those who might be otherwise lacking those things this holiday season such as soup kitchens, Friends of Night People or any community organization distributing food or presents for the holiday season. Donating to organizations like Mental Health Advocates can also help those in need of support and to work towards bringing an end to stigma around mental health challenges at the holidays.