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Mental Health & the Holidays: How You Can Support Someone with Depression During a Pandemic

person sitting near Christmas tree, looking at a tablet

We already know that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on our mental health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that in late June, 40% of adults reported struggling with mental health. Those mental health concerns included:

The CDC’s report indicated that adults, racial and ethnic minorities, essential workers and unpaid caregivers were especially at risk.

Additionally, Oxford University researchers found that 1 in 5 people who get COVID are diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder within 90 days. Joanna Yost, PhD, a clinical psychologist at UVA Behavioral Medicine, says there isn’t enough information to completely understand why. But even a mild case causes stress and physical isolation, which can make mental health symptoms worse.

Then, consider that some also suffer from seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that causes symptoms during a specific time of year, usually the fall and winter. Yost explains that the shorter days affect a person’s circadian rhythm or “body clock,” which then affect’s the body’s ability to regulate your mood.

Add in the typical stress and pressure of the holidays, and it’s easy to see why many may really be struggling this December. Yost says most mental health providers have seen an increase in new patients this year, as well as previous patients seeking treatment again.

“I’m glad people are recognizing when they might need additional skills to cope with life right now,” she says. “I also worry that many people who might want or need services have not reached out or have been unable to access them.”

Supporting Someone with Mental Illness: A Q&A

Yost sat down (virtually, of course) with us to explain how we can help support family and friends who are struggling with mental illness this holiday season.

What can you do to help a friend or family member who’s depressed, especially when you can’t see them in person?

Yost: The first thing is to familiarize yourself with the symptoms of depression. These include:

If you notice a family member or friend experiencing symptoms of depression, talk to them about it. Check in with them about their mood and ask them about how they’re coping with life right now. Let them know you want to help. Get creative about ways you can spend time together while physically distancing yourselves and following CDC guidelines.

If they’re experiencing distress or difficulty with normal functioning, suggest that they consider seeking help from a mental health professional and offer to help them find that person.

What should you do if you think your loved one may be considering suicide?

Yost: One very important thing for people to know is that asking someone about suicidal thoughts does not increase the likelihood that they experience them or put the idea in their head.  Many people who are having suicidal thoughts are reluctant to verbalize them and are relieved when someone else broaches the issue first.

If you’re concerned, ask, and don’t be afraid to use the word “suicide.” You might feel uneasy using that word and instead ask about “not doing anything drastic” or “hurting yourself.” But these euphemisms tend to communicate to a suicidal person that you’re uncomfortable hearing about how bad things are. It could cause them to minimize their symptoms and their risk.

“Have you been thinking about suicide?” is a perfectly supportive and caring question to ask.

Is it ok to suggest a suicide hotline?

Yost: It absolutely is, but it is also important to recognize that not everyone is open to using a suicide prevention hotline. I think many people share suicide hotline information because they don’t know how else to help. It’s often a sincere effort to be supportive.

Many people who are reaching out for support may already feel isolated, ashamed, or burdensome to others. Asking for help is an emotionally vulnerable thing to do, so being redirected to call someone else can sometimes feel like confirmation that no one cares or wants to listen. 

Much of the time, people who are reaching out for support need someone to just be there – not to fix the problem, give perfect advice, or provide some miraculous healing experience, but simply to be willing to sit with them in their pain and not run away. Literally just sitting there and listening does a lot more good than most people realize and it’s what a lot of people who are struggling really need.

Professional intervention may be necessary, but basic social support is indispensable. Most everyone is capable of providing it if they have the right knowledge and guidance. If you’re interested in pursuing formal training, look into:

So what’s the value in a suicide hotline? Can it be helpful?

Yost: The essential function of a hotline is to get another head in the game – someone who is used to talking to people who are in distress, who knows how to help someone calm down and re-orient, and who can help the person make a plan to stay safe until better and more personal resources become available. Those resources may be a friend, a family member, or a therapist.

Concerned About a Loved One?

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can support you 24/7 as you help a loved one through a crisis. Call them at 800.273.8255.

People on hotlines are only strangers until you start talking to them. It takes a lot of courage to open up about your experience. Sometimes it’s easier to be candid with a neutral party than it is with someone close to you. Hotlines exist to be that neutral party – a person who has nothing at stake but your wellbeing. If you’re able to open up a little, you might be surprised by the support you’ll find.

Recovery from suicidality is a process that can take time and commitment, but every process starts somewhere. The first step is reaching out. Hotlines offer one option for that.

What mental health resources do we have in the Charlottesville area?

If someone is experiencing a life-threatening medical emergency, call 911.

If you’re looking for a therapist, you can:

These local organizations also provide counseling and other help:

Find more organizations and support through the Community Mental Health and Wellness Coalition.

UVA employees & students can get support from:

Finally, you can get anonymous, free peer support through the phone:

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