Getting through the holidays

LIHUE — The holidays are a busy time of year for Dr. Harold Goldberg, medical director of the Kauai Community Mental Health Center.

“We usually get a flurry of admissions to the hospital around the holidays, and there is also usually an uptick in suicidal attempts around the holidays,” Goldberg said. “We try to be as available as we can.”

Joan Levy, a licensed clinical social worker on Kauai, said psychiatrists get busy over the holiday season as well.

“There’s so much stress around Christmas. It’s economical, social, family, psychological; lots of stress that happens for people around Christmastime,” Levy said. “It’s sort of like tax time for some therapists.”

The holiday season has been hailed the most wonderful time of the year by many songs and stories, but it’s not always the case in the real world. That dichotomy is one of the triggers for crisis, according to Levy.

“For example, Christmas brings up idealized, wishful thinking, and happy home lives, but a lot of people find disconnects and inner rivalries when they go home for Christmas,” Levy said. “The dysfunctional patterns that always happen in the family happen, and it’s not really pleasant.”

That feeling of conflict throughout the holidays can be attributed to the modern commercialism of Christmastime as well.

“Christmas is meant to be a spiritually significant day where you are celebrating the birth of Christ,” Levy said. “It’s about the gratitude you have for what Christ is in your life, and it’s turned into this massively marketed commercial enterprise.”

Presents also add anxiety to the season as people stress about what they’re going to get and what they’ll gift to others, all the while trying to stay within their budget.

“A lot of people will go into debt for Christmas,” Levy said. “They’ll be in debt for Christmas all year and just when you’re out of debt, Christmas comes again.”

When everyone is gathered around the hearth, those missing from the gathering can also make the holidays hard to bear.

There are many aspects to grieving a lost loved one, and Levy said the process usually takes between one and two years to complete. No matter where a person is in the grief process, though, the holidays can re-stimulate the feelings of loss or resentment and can aggravate the grieving process.

“Some people find themselves isolating and not wanting to engage in holiday things,” Levy said. “The holiday comes and it’s a reminder of that person and the unfinished business that’s needing attention can come to the surface.”

Those living with depression or social anxiety can also have a hard time during the holidays. It’s the season for parties, and a lack of an invitation could send someone into an emotional nose-dive.

“The antidote for feeling disconnected is to initiate connection, but for people who are depressed, that’s the last thing they feel able to do,” Levy said. “It’s humiliating to pick up the phone and say, “‘I hear you’re having a party, can I come?’”

Even if a person with tendencies for depression goes to a holiday party, sometimes they end up sitting in the back, feeling lonely with a barrier between themselves and the other people.

“To break through that barrier, to have a new experience, we need extra energy and when you’re depressed, you don’t have that energy, or you’re too afraid to use it,” Levy said.

The key to staying stable through the holidays, Levy said, is to break the cycle.

People should go join in a conversation, ask about parties, and interact with their support system throughout the season.

“Try to connect with people you know that are helpful or supportive,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg recommended that those who go to treatment should get an extra appointment over the holidays and those with alcohol and drug problems should go to more meetings.

“Most of it, in my opinion, is flashbacks to earlier life trauma, and we get reminded of it when the Christmas tree goes up,” Goldberg said. “That’s one of the most common triggers for people to get back to feeling suicidal or upset.”

Goldberg’s recommendation for those in crisis over the holiday season is to go to Wilcox Emergency Room.

“It’s staffed by people who are former employees of ours,” Goldberg said. “They’re set up and we can provide best services through that system.”

The Department of Mental Health also has outreach workers who go to emergency rooms for immediate intervention and further evaluation.

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