Mental Health

How to survive (your family) during the holidays

The festive season is a difficult time for some people, especially those who have a previous history of mental illness. Photo credit: World Health Organisation/File Photo.
Written by Pontsho Pilane

The Christmas break is seen as a time to spend with loved ones, go on holiday or take some time off work. But for many people, their families could be the source of their anxiety and depression, making the “festive” season, a time of loneliness and sadness.

It’s been three years since Kelebogile Motaung*, 28, went home for the festive season. Her family live about 200km from her Johannesburg home but visiting them during the holidays is not an option. “The last time I went home for Christmas it took me all of January to recover,” she says. “It’s the snide comments [from relatives] about my hair, body and my general life choices that make it so difficult to enjoy being there.”

Motaung is one of many people who have a hard time during the holidays, says Kayla Phillips, media liaison for the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). While the organisation’s data show there is no increase in the number of calls they receive over the festive season, SADAG receives more calls related to loneliness (especially from the elderly), depression and anxiety, grief and relationship problems linked to the holidays.

People with mental illness are more susceptible to having “festive blues”. (Photo Credit: Helen Harrop/ Flickr)

The festive season is especially difficult for people living with a mental illness, says Phillips. She explains: “Many mental health professionals are away, day-to-day routines change, and the usual resources utilised during stressful times may not be as easily available. That is why it is so important that SADAG stay open throughout the holidays because mental health doesn’t go on a holiday.”

People who have a predisposition or have been diagnosed with a mental illness such as depression are more likely to have the “festive blues”, says clinical psychologist and SADAG representative Charity Mkone.  Festive blues is different from a diagnosis of depression or bipolar disorder, says Mkone. Some people find it difficult to feel cheerful during this time of the year.

She explains: “Some of the symptoms of the festive blues can look like symptoms of depression. It often happens when a person is very uncomfortable with being around certain people, mostly family members. For example, when they are home they have disagreements with relatives and being home brings out the memories of a loved one they have lost.

Society expects everyone to be warm and joyful during this time of the year, adds Mkone, there’s generally a lot of stigma around mental illness and these kinds of expectations can make things worse.

Queermas Lunch

Thabile Shale was working over Christmas last year and was unable to go home to her family as she’s always done. Disappointed to not be spending the holidays with her loved ones, Shale thought about those who were not as fortunate as her.

“I started thinking about people who don’t have the option to go home because there’s no home to go to,” she says. “People whose families are not loving and are emotionally abusive.”

She tweeted out an invitation for queer people around Johannesburg who didn’t want to be alone during this time to come to her house for a Christmas.

“I wanted specifically queer people to have a safe and loving space to spend the day,” she remembers. “So there were three main rules: no bigotry, no bullying and everyone’s boundaries must be respected.”

About ten people came to Shale’s Christmas lunch. There was laughter and joy, and for many, a break from the emotional distress of being alone or around homophobic relatives. Although she won’t be doing it this year, Shale encourages others to open up their homes to those who may need it the most.

Setting boundaries

But the choice of staying away from your family during this time isn’t always there. Motaung dreaded the end of the academic year when she was still a student who depended on her parents. “I stayed in university accommodation so I had to go home when I was done with my exams,” she remembers. She would “try to be invisible” during the two-month long holidays — do as she was told and say as little as possible out of fear of attracting her family’s attention. “If they couldn’t see me then I wouldn’t be criticised, right?”

Here’s a quick guide on how to deal with being around family members when they aren’t so great for your mental wellbeing.

Not everyone enjoys being around family and friends for days, says Phillips. It’s important to set boundaries such as visiting for a day, not a weekend. “Don’t let anyone ‘guilt’ you into committing to anything you’re not comfortable with,” she adds.

It’s important to remember the festive season is just two weeks — not forever, says Mkone. “In most cases it would be wise to create boundaries and separate yourself from those family members who aren’t good for your mental wellbeing if you can,” she explains. If it’s impossible to avoid family, then it’s best to find coping mechanisms.

Mkone suggests, for instance, doing something that can distract you so that you don’t easily slip into a depressive episode or feel hopeless. ”Take a walk or a run, go to gym or visit a local orphanage – the key is to establish a routine to minimise contact time with your family.”

If the feelings of sadness get worse, to the point that you’re struggling to get out of bed or you find yourself irritable all the time, Mkone advises seeking help by calling SADAG’s helpline or going to the nearest psychiatric ward if you have medical aid.

Recognising your holiday triggers is the greatest way to prevent the festive blues. For some, this may mean spending the holidays away from their families.

“I know my limits now,” Motaung laughs. “The most I can handle is three days with them so I see them between Christmas and New Year’s Day. It works because then I don’t feel guilty and anxious about choosing my own peace over them.” — Health-e News

*Not her real name 

Need a psychologist, psychiatrist or support group? You can you call the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) on 011 234 4837 or 0800 20 50 26 and speak to a trained counselor who can assist you further.

About the author

Pontsho Pilane