Mental health challenges increase during holiday season, community members share coping mechanisms

A+Christmas+tree+stands+in+a+living+room.+During+the+holiday+season%2C+mental+health+challenges%2C+like+depression%2C+loneliness+and+stress+can+increase+for+many+people.+

Audrey Chang

A Christmas tree stands in a living room. During the holiday season, mental health challenges, like depression, loneliness and stress can increase for many people.

By Audrey Chang, Archer School for Girls

Content Warning: This article mentions suicide and depression. If you or anyone you know needs mental health support, reach out to Teen Line by calling 852-8336 or texting “TEEN” to 839863 if you are a teenager, or call 988 for the National  Suicide Prevention Hotline

While the holiday season is a time many people look forward to, whether because it’s a break from school, a chance to spend time with family or celebrate holiday traditions, these reasons can also be a cause of stress and a worsened state of mental health for many.

In a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 38% of individuals said they become more stressed during the holidays for various reasons, including lack of time, financial pressures, gift-giving and family gatherings. This increased stress can lead to physical illness, depression or anxiety.

Additionally, the National Alliance on Mental Illness stated that 64% of people already living with a mental illness felt their conditions were further exacerbated around the holidays. According to CDC data, mental health was already getting worse among high schoolers in the U.S. before COVID-19, but it declined further with the pandemic’s challenges. In 2021, 37% of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health, and 44% also reported persistently feeling sad or hopeless during that year.

School Counselor Jaime MacDonald said even before COVID-19’s impact on mental health, the holiday season could worsen many people’s mental health when seeing or thinking about family they have difficult relationships with.

“I think holidays in general — even before COVID — can be difficult. Sometimes people may look at their situation through their personal lens, but forget that sometimes people could have difficult family relationships, and oftentimes around holidays you get together with family,” MacDonald said. “If you’ve experienced grief or loss in the past, sometimes, during the holiday, it gets amplified because you’re potentially missing someone who you have a tradition with.”

Sophomore Francie Wallack volunteers at Teen Line, which provides support and resources to young people through a hotline run by professionally trained teen counselors. She said her favorite part of volunteering has been learning specific strategies to help friends and other people struggling with their mental health.

“Over the holidays with seeing your family and maybe just doing your general traditions, it might be hard if you’ve experienced a loss or a breakup, or just any form of a difference in your normal pattern of life,” Wallack said. “That can be hard to celebrate things … if you don’t have a lot of a lot of loved ones, so it can be hard for a lot of people.”

In order to cope with some of the challenges around the holiday season, such as pressure for holiday celebrations, difficult relationships or increased stress, MacDonald recommended setting reasonable expectations and boundaries.

Many students look forward to breaks from school, but for others, school is a safe haven from the stress at home. It is important to remember that not everyone is feeling excited about time off and they may need more support from friends.”

— Jaime MacDonald, School Counselor

“First and foremost, you have to set reasonable expectations around holidays. I think sometimes — and we all do this — but we go into the holiday thinking ‘It’s Christmas or it’s Hanukkah, and this is going to be the best one yet.’ And yet, maybe you’ve had an experience where it’s not good because you have difficult relationships with people,” MacDonald said. “If you know that you’re headed into something that’s difficult to have time for yourself, keep to the same routine that you do … and if something does actually help protect you at a time that is difficult, then make sure you do more of that around the holidays and make sure it’s a healthy coping mechanism or healthy self-care.”

Senior Lexie Horizon is one of the co-leaders of Archer’s Mental Health Club this year, and she first became involved with the club in seventh grade. Horizon said while different coping mechanisms can be effective for different people, finding something that brings joy is valuable for everyone during a time of increased stress or sadness.

“In general, seasonal depression is something that people don’t talk about. And as the weather changes, I know that impacts people as well as being around people and family that you may not see as much,” Horizon said. “Apart from talking to someone, I think doing yoga and breathing exercises — the typical coping mechanisms — and doing what you love [is helpful]. So, for me, I love to play basketball, and just participating in those extracurricular activities that make you happy is super important.”

In a follow-up email, MacDonald added that for adolescents’ mental health around this time, it is essential to keep in mind that students can have different experiences and feelings about the holidays.

“Many students look forward to breaks from school, but for others, school is a safe haven from the stress at home,” MacDonald wrote. “It is important to remember that not everyone is feeling excited about time off and they may need more support from friends.”

Wallack said while there is not one coping mechanism that works for everyone, she recommended looking at 99 positive coping skills to find activities that encourage positive mental health.

“One resource that people forget about a lot is just leaning on your friends and family because obviously they care about you, and they just want to help you, so I think that that’s something that gets forgotten a lot because that’s a resource that’s right in front of us,” Wallack said. “Being at Archer, we have all of our teachers supporting us too.”

According to mentalhealth.gov, educators can support the mental health of students by promoting social and emotional competency, helping ensure a positive, safe school environment, teaching and reinforcing positive behaviors and decision-making and helping ensure access to school-based mental health supports.

“In terms of increased awareness, I think that Archer … [and] the students have done such a good job of raising awareness. We have our clubs, and we talk about it — at least I hear about talking about in classrooms,” MacDonald said. “People don’t hide mental health struggles, and I think that’s the first part to be able to talk about it to say ‘Here’s how I’m struggling.'”

MacDonald suggested texting or calling Teen Line or the Suicide Prevention Hotline if students are struggling with their mental health. She said a person does not need to be actively suicidal to access the Suicide Prevention Hotline, as it can also be used if they are looking to talk to someone at any hour of the day or want to be connected to other resources in the community.

“We often look at things only through our personal experience, [and] it’s important to broaden our perspective and to know that we don’t really know every aspect of somebody’s story,” MacDonald said “It’s okay to check in with friends and ask pretty pointed questions. It’s okay to have an open conversation and give friends permission to say when they’re not okay, and I think that would help increase discussion around mental health.”

This story was originally published on The Oracle on December 15, 2022.