By Prof Siobhan O’Neill | Irish Association of Suicidology.
Tis the season to be jolly, apparently, however it is also the season of higher rates of suicide and more than ever, many of us struggle over the Christmas period. It seems that the emphasis on celebration, family time and indulgence can, for some, serve to highlight personal sadness and loneliness, which can exacerbate mental health difficulties. Every silver lining has a cloud. Families in financial crisis may be made to feel inadequate, people who have suffered a loss may feel the grief more acutely and those with fractured relationships may feel particularly isolated. At a time when we celebrate a birth and new life, the absence of children can be especially painful.
Mental health is an issue for everyone. We will all experience loss and sadness at some stage and at least a quarter of us will have a mental illness over the course of our lifetime. The pain of mental anguish, combined with a sense of hopelessness about the future are key precursors to suicidal feelings. Whilst the trappings of the festive season can highlight feelings of inadequacy, loss and isolation, the season also offers unparalleled opportunities for expressing love, kindness and goodwill. The literature on happiness tells us that doing things for others, and making others happy is actually one of the most important routes to fulfilment and mental well-being. So my top tip for a happy Christmas is to do something to make someone else happy. It can be a thoughtful gift, simply calling with someone for a cup of tea, or even a random act of kindness for a stranger. For someone who is vulnerable to suicidal feelings a phone call, text or visit can make all the difference.
Perhaps that someone is you? If you’re prone to depression or low mood Christmas is a time to take care of yourself. Look after your general health, try to sleep well and eat properly. It’s tempting to drink too much alcohol or spend too much money but both can be forms of self sabotage creating more distress in the long run. Be kind to yourself, resolve to stop beating yourself up about perceived inadequacies. Perfectionism can be very damaging and unachievable goals are always destined to fail.
Social media such as Facebook and Twitter offer unprecedented opportunities to connect with others and integrate with like minded people. However social media can feel like a poor substitute for real life interactions. It’s probably better to be very selective in terms of who you engage with and make it work for you. Remember that people use social media to give the impression of having a perfect life, creating a world which often bears no resemblance to reality; so take those perfect happy family posts with a pinch of salt.
If you have a mental health difficulty, or know that this Christmas is going to be difficult, forward planning and structure are essential. Use your own coping strategies, exercise, spending time with friends, listening to the radio, or watching your favourite movies can all be very helpful. Make sure that you have a way of contacting a trusted friend, or a helpline, such as the Samaritans, so that you can reach out and get support. It is important to acknowledge losses and mark the absence of loved ones in a way that works for you. This can be as simple as burning a candle in their memory, attending a service, visiting a grave or making a donation to a charity on their behalf. Finally, remember that it’s also perfectly ok to opt out of Christmas too. After all it really is only one day and it will pass.
The Samaritans are here if you need to talk:
Tel – (IRL) 116 123.
Tel – (UK) 116 123.
First published in Our Winter Newsletter 2014.
Prof Siobhan O’Neill
MPsychSc PhD CPsychol
Professor of Mental Health Sciences
Psychology Research Institute
University of Ulster, Magee,