How to make sure a loved one is OK over the holidays (and take care of yourself)
Image by HANNAH RUHOFF
Tough news locally and across the country this week has dampened a typically joyful beginning to the end-of-year holiday season.
If you’re spending time with loved ones and notice someone’s not doing well, what’s the best thing to say? How can our words and actions extend beyond the holiday gathering?
“For so many, this is the first holiday season that feels normal again, so expectations are super high. But holidays are never perfect, as much as we’d like them to be, so we should think about how to help ourselves and each other when we all eventually need it,” said Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center.
The News & Observer talked with Gurwitch and Dr. Crystal Schiller, a clinical psychologist with the UNC Department of Psychiatry, to learn more about how to best handle these situations this holiday season.
COMMON SIGNS OF MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
Generally, you can identify signs of a mental health struggle by noticeable changes in someone’s behavior, which can include:
- Withdrawing from social interactions, and not being as talkative.
- Or the reverse, talking much more than they usually do.
- Drinking much more alcohol than they normally do.
- Eating much less or much more.
“When I see these things, I wouldn’t comment on the behavior itself, like ‘Oh, I see you’re not talking to anybody.’ But I’d instead start by asking some broad questions, like how are things going for you? How are you feeling today?” Schiller said.
“See what the person brings up, and if they’re open to a discussion, then you can ask some more follow-up questions and understand what this difficult time looks like for them.”
If they’re not receptive to a conversation, you shouldn’t push it more, she said: “There’s nothing worse than feeling really bad and having someone pry into your business. You can check in with them later.”
HOW TO HELP SOMEONE STRUGGLING OVER THE HOLIDAYS
Here’s how Schiller suggests you help a loved one struggling over the holiday season:
- Find a quiet place to talk: Don’t have this conversation at the holiday table. Find a moment of quiet and ask those broad “How are you doing today?” questions to see if your loved one is interested in a conversation.
- Listen actively: Ask questions to paint a picture. If something difficult happened in your loved one’s life, you can ask appropriate questions to learn more about the hardship they’re facing.
- Ask for an action step: Instead of saying “Is there anything I can do to help?” you can ask “What’s one thing I can do to support you?” Make sure you hear their request and follow through. If you’re not in a position to help them out, but you notice they’re struggling, you might talk with them to learn who else can be a source of support for them.
- Reach out the next day: You should do this both if your loved one was open to talking, and if they weren’t. Let them know you’re thinking about them and were glad to spend time with them for the holidays. “We don’t always know the little moments that make a difference in someone’s life,” Gurwitch said. “Just knowing someone out there cares about them and was thinking about them in that moment.”
IF YOU’RE STRUGGLING THIS HOLIDAY SEASON, DO THESE THINGS
While we’re thinking about ways to help our loved ones having a difficult time this holiday season, we should take time to consider how we’re feeling and ways we can feel supported. Here are some ways Gurwitch recommends checking in with yourself ahead of these important days:
- Know holidays are never perfect: “We’ve all seen holiday movies. We know people don’t get along, the food gets burned… that’s what makes us laugh. That’s the conflict of those movies we watch every year,” she said. “Set aside your expectations that the holiday will be perfect. It won’t.” By managing expectations ahead of time, you won’t feel disappointed or guilty when the holiday doesn’t go to perfect plan, or if you recognize in advance that the holidays will be tough for you this year.
- Establish a trusted buddy: Take time before the holiday events to identify a trusted friend or family member you can reach out to if things get tough. It can be helpful to establish a check-in time — if dinner is scheduled for 4 p.m., maybe you can plan to text your trusted buddy at 6. “It doesn’t even have to be a phone call, or sending a long text with updates about the day. It can be sending one emoji to update with how you’re feeling. Or a number on a scale from 1 to 10. But if you need to talk by phone or FaceTime, make sure ahead of time that your friend will be around to help you out.”
- Make space to grieve, but know experiencing holiday joy is also perfectly fine. “It’s OK to feel joy being together while also mourning. Both emotions can be there at the same time. Don’t feel guilty for having a nice time when you thought the holidays would be nothing but difficult,” she said. You can excuse yourself to a separate room or a walk around the block if you start to get overwhelmed.
- Help someone else, if you’d like: Sometimes, if you’re feeling stressed or having feelings tough to manage, you can help yourself by helping someone else. You can offer to make something for the holiday gathering, or you can find an organization to volunteer with. If lending a helping hand is too overwhelming and you need some mental health resources to help you through your difficult time, that’s more than OK.
HOW TO OFFER MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT TO FRIENDS, FAMILY
If a loved one is showing signs of a mental health issue or asking you for help, here’s how MentalHealth.gov “For Friends and Family Members” guide suggests you can offer your support:
- Are they getting help? Find out if the person is getting the care that they need or want. If not, connect them to resources for help.
- Show compassion: Express your concern and support.
- Help is available: Remind your loved one that help is available, and mental health problems can be treated.
- Listen actively: Ask questions, listen to ideas and be responsive when the topic of mental health problems come up.
- Tell them you care: Reassure your loved one that you care about them.
- Lend a hand: Offer to help your loved one with everyday tasks.
- Extend an invite: Include your loved one in your plans. Continue to invite them without being overbearing, even if they resist your invitations.
- Talk about mental health openly: Educate other people so they understand mental health issues and treat those struggling with dignity and compassion.
- Be respectful: Treat people with mental health problems with respect, compassion and empathy.
CONVERSATION-STARTERS ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH WITH FRIENDS, FAMILY
If you need help starting a conversation about mental health challenges, you can try these leading questions from MentalHealth.gov’s “For Friends and Family Members” guide. Make sure you actively listen to your loved one’s responses.
- I’ve been worried about you. Can we talk about what you are experiencing? If not, who are you comfortable talking to?
- What can I do to help you to talk about issues with your parents, or someone else who is responsible and cares about you?
- What else can I help you with?
- I am someone who cares and wants to listen. What do you want me to know about how you are feeling?
- Who or what has helped you deal with similar issues in the past?
- Sometimes talking to someone who has dealt with a similar experience helps. Do you know of others who have experienced these types of problems who you can talk with?
- It seems like you are going through a difficult time. How can I help you to find help?
- How can I help you find more information about mental health problems?
- I’m concerned about your safety. Have you thought about harming yourself or others?
When talking about mental health problems:
- Know how to connect people to help.
- Communicate in a straightforward manner.
- Speak at a level appropriate to a person’s age and development level.
- Discuss the topic when and where the person feels safe and comfortable.
- Watch for reactions during the discussion and slow down or back up if the person becomes confused or looks upset.
MentalHealth.gov has a long list of resources available for anyone in need. They have guides for parents, family members, children and more hoping to open conversations about mental health. Find those guides at MentalHealth.gov/talk.
MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES IN NORTH CAROLINA
Mental health resources — especially amid the pandemic, and even more so as we approach the holiday season — have been limited. The N&O previously put together a list for anyone who needs help.
Find resources for immediate help and specific groups for people in and around the Triangle at newsobserver.com/news.