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For some people the food, family and festivities of Christmas can be the loneliest time of year. People who are on their own feel more alone than ever and the financial strain on those who are less advantaged can be immense.

According to Johannesburg psychologist, Colinda Linde: “There are those people who dread this time of year, and the incidence of depression (as well as suicide) is very high. The people I am referring to are those who’ve had a recent loss – like a death or children who have emigrated. I also refer to those without a support network of family and friends. These people often rely on work to provide them with company, so the December holidays can be a time of isolation and loneliness.”

Even for those who are not alone, Christmas can be a painful period. Not all families are happy – there may be old disputes or separations and there may have been abuse or a recent bereavement. In these cases Christmas can be a reminder of these painful memories. For others with more difficult families, being forced to spend time with relatives whom they dislike, and having to be jolly and make conversation with people with whom they have nothing in common, can create vast amounts of tension and stress.

All this anxiety can lead to depression, and for depressed people, who already find it difficult to socialize and to experience joy in company, Christmas can be an especially trying time, and they may feel more isolated than ever.

The expense of Christmas and the pressure to spend more than one can afford on the latest and most fashionable gifts and expensive food and drink, can be another severe burden. The debts incurred and the feelings of guilt that surround this holiday period can lead to anxiety, stress and even to depression.

To cope with this Christmas stress, many people turn to food, over-the-counter medications, or drink too much to try to feel cheerful, using alcohol as a form of “self-medication”. It is important to remember though that the initial euphoria and sociability soon disappears, and the combination of lowered inhibitions, old resentments and alcohol can lead to quarrels and injured feelings. Colinda Linde states: “It is a ‘quick-fix’, so when you are sober again you have the side-effects of drinking – dehydration, slowed mental processes, nausea and depression.” Alcohol and depression do not mix.

Another event where people tend to exceed the healthy limits of alcohol consumption is New Year’s Eve. There are always very high levels of expectations that surround the end of the year and it tends to be a time when people look back at the year and evaluate their lives.

Students are one group who tend to be particularly vulnerable. They’ve worked hard the whole year and there are expectations that by the end of the whole process they should be feeling a certain way. The reality can be an anti-climax.

In the face of the New Year, people should tone down their expectations. The end of the year is just a transition to another year. However the fresh start the new year offers is important. The sense of a new beginning is an opportunity to start again – but then again, people must also be more realistic about the New Year resolutions that they make.

A new study undertaken in Sweden shows that the number of men who kill themselves leaps more than tenfold on New Year’s Day. In South Africa, an increasing number of suicides around this time has also been noted.

Telephone counsellors at the Depression and Anxiety Support Group are gearing up for calls from all over the country who are likely to feel isolated and alone over Christmas and New Year. The Support Group can be contacted on (011) 783-1474/6.

If you feel someone you know may be suicidal, there are certain things that you can do to help:

KNOW THE DANGER SIGNALS

· Previous suicide attempt - Those who have attempted to kill themselves have a 20-50% higher risk for taking their lives.

· Talking about death and suicide – People who commit suicide often talk about it directly or indirectly.

· Planning for suicide – Suicidal individuals often arrange to put their affairs in order.

· Depression – Although most depressed people are not suicidal, most suicidal people are depressed. Serious depression can be manifested in obvious sadness, but often it is expressed instead as loss of pleasure or withdrawal from activities that had once been enjoyable.

TAKE IT SERIOUSLY

75% of all suicides give some warning of their intentions to a friend or family member.

BE WILLING TO LISTEN

Take the initiative to ask what is troubling them, and attempt to overcome any reluctance to talk about it. If your friend or relative is depressed, do not be afraid to ask whether he or she is considering suicide, or even if they have a particular plan or method in mind.

SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP

Be actively involved in encouraging the person to see a physician or mental health professional immediately.

IN AN ACUTE CRISIS

In an acute crisis, take the person to an emergency room or walk-in clinic at a psychiatric hospital. Do not leave the person alone until help is available.