Wellness: Holiday Blues

With an ailing economy adding extra pressure to the heightened expectations of the holidays, is it any wonder you feel bummed out?

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Perhaps the most common feeling people have during the last couple of months of each year is one of pressure. The holiday season is laden with expectations—expectations we put on ourselves, our society and our families—and the compulsion to fulfil them often nudges out any awareness of the warm-and-fuzzies that are supposed to accompany the holidays. We torture ourselves with questions: Is this present good enough? Is the guy I'm bringing home good enough? Have I gotten enough presents? Will the kids be happy? Will my parents be happy?

For some, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the onslaught of depression when the weather changes, contributes to this pressure. For those who don't have a crowd of family around them this time of year, the stress of social failure may replace this pressure to please. The deeper into December it gets, the more public reminders there are of the good time we are supposed to be having, the people we are supposed to love and the money we need to spend to prove it.

The pressure to please is felt even at the most financially comfortable times. So what of this trying economic crisis that shows no near sign of relenting? How will this affect the mental health of Americans during this already stressful time? Will the pressures bring some Americans close to desperation, a state of mind that often leads to extreme measures?

It's conventional wisdom that suicide rates increase during the holidays, a belief that is largely perpetuated by the boom in newspaper articles that address mental health this time of year. Suicide, suicide attempts or suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide) are serious symptoms of mental illness, and are often the result of afflictions like depression or other mental disorders, or external pressures. Coping with suicide, or preventing it from happening, is easier if its nature is understood. In most cases suicidal symptoms point to treatable illness.

?mile Durkheim, the 19th century French sociologist whose work is foundational to modern sociology and anthropology, determined that there are four types of suicide: egoistic suicide, resulting from the weakening of social bonds; altruistic suicide, which occurs when an individual's needs are seen as less important that the society's (think suicide bombings in the Middle East); anomic suicide, which happens when an individual feels that he or she can't live up to social standards; and fatalistic suicide, when a person would prefer to die than to continue living in a persecuted state.

Durkheim would categorize the suicides that occur due to loneliness or financial pressures of the holidays as either egoistic or anomic suicides. But despite popular wisdom and the very real stress factors that occur during the holidays, suicides are not more frequent this time of year. According to a study conducted in 1999 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, suicide rates are not at their lowest during the months of November, December and January, but are usually at their highest around June through August. Durkheim observed that "suicide reaches its maximum during the fine season, when nature is most smiling and the temperature mildest." The Annenberg Center also concluded that media coverage of suicide and depression traditionally increases around the holidays.

Since 2000, the Center has been working with the press to decrease reporting that perpetuates this myth during the holiday season in order to prevent copycat suicides, and they've been successful. However, while it may not be the case that suicides dramatically rise, stress and seasonal depression are real phenomena. And there's a factor that comes into play this year that may exacerbate these pressures, or perhaps cause people who have never been the victims of mental instability to suffer for the first time.

Unfortunately, the current state of the economy that coincides with this holiday season might stoke the fires of the holiday suicide myth this year. The financial crisis has already spurred notorious suicides due to job loss or home foreclosure. News of the elderly Ohio resident Addie Polk, who shot herself when Fannie Mae foreclosed on her home, received national coverage this October. Not long after, a financial manager named Karthik Rajaram, despondent over financial losses, killed his family and then himself in a tragic murder/suicide in California. For some, a career or job may seem like an identity, the loss of which can be unresolvable. For others the expectation to provide the same level of financial comfort for themselves and their family they were once able to but can no longer support may become unbearable. In the country's last great depression, the suicide rate increased from 14/100,000 to 17/100,000. At the moment, the state of Massachusetts isn't doing much to cushion the blow; Governor Patrick's recent budget cuts to state mental health departments total over $8 million.

But evidence that people are spending less and perhaps not succumbing to financial stressors can be seen by simply opening a flyer advertising a holiday sale. The dramatic price cuts on big-ticket items are proof that people are spending less. Economists would say this is bad for the economy in the long run and will only perpetuate the financial crisis, but it is evidence of a healthy effort to be frugal rather than living beyond one's means because of social pressures.

Instead of buying large quantities of expensive presents this year, it may be wise to think of alternative gifts and activities that would alleviate some of the stress that surrounds the holidays. Homemade gifts are becoming more popular, and the act of making a gift can be a successful diversion from negative thoughts. Seeing a holiday film with the family is another alternative. And of course, there's the much-promoted but much-ignored act of volunteering. Helping someone else is excellent therapy; it's hard to feel bad about yourself when you know you've done something good.

And despite the state's recent cuts to state-funded mental health programs, there are support systems in place to aid those who may suffer from mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has online communities as well as state and local alliances. Those who suffer from SAD, which can be treated with special light therapy, may alleviate symptoms by taking a trip to the local tanning salon (though the UV damage to your skin might outweigh the benefits).

It's obvious that the state of the economy is connected to various aspects of our life, not least of all to our mental health. In times of economic turmoil, it's an unfortunate fact that our mental health will suffer. The holidays may actually alleviate some of the stress. After all, the point of gathering a bunch of friends and relatives to eat and drink is to have a good time. Tons of turkey were consumed last week; families gathered and undoubtedly fought over carving techniques and the rules of touch football. No doubt many are taking advantage of the time of year when people are supposed to at least act as though they like each other. The thing to do might just be to literalize holiday cliche and find the "true meaning" of these traditions.

 

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