FROM bouncing badgers to natty knitwear, Christmas for most is a time of merriment, partying and laughter. For people living with mental ill health it can be the worst time of year – a day to dread.
This month Support in Mind Scotland will hold Christmas parties and lunches across the country, but our staff and volunteers are acutely aware that many people who access our services need additional support at this time of year to cope with heightened feelings of anxiety, isolation, loneliness and depression.
Caring for a loved one who is suffering from a serious mental illness can also be enormously challenging, and the reality of getting through Christmas can be a world away from the shiny, happy images portrayed in adverts.
We asked two people involved with our organisation to share with you, in their own words, their reasons why Christmas represents a mere blot on the calendar for them. Their accounts are intensely personal and powerful.
The majority of us will sit down with our families to eat, drink and be merry at Christmas. But at this most compassionate time of year please spare a moment’s thought for those who are not in such a fortunate position. Here is a service user’s view:
“Personally I detest Christmas. For me, personally, there are several issues.
“The first one is the fact that I don’t have any family. I’ve noticed a lot of people who have mental health issues appear to live on their own, it is quite common. Virtually everywhere shuts down for Christmas, including services for people experiencing mental illness, so the isolation can be particularly difficult to live with. To put it bluntly Christmas is a bind of a day and it is a big relief when those services reopen.
“I have experienced depressive anxiety and I have a couple of phobic issues, and this time of year can be extremely hard for people living with mental ill health.
“I also have an issue with the booze. I have been sober for nearly four years, but Christmas creates additional pressure, particularly when there is so much drink around. Isolation and boredom can be sure triggers to go back on the bottle again, so it’s important to me to be aware of what I am doing and have a plan to keep my mind occupied. I usually go out for a long walk on Christmas Day and create some structure for my day, but I know that I can never afford to be complacent. I take one year at a time.
“I don’t want people to think my hatred for Christmas is a case of ‘bah humbug’. I know it’s an important, happy time of the year for other people, and you can’t take it out of the calendar, but for me I would be so happy if tomorrow was 2 January.”
And here is a carer’s view
“We have been caring for our elder son for 17 years since he was diagnosed with schizophrenia just after graduating. From that time he has either spent Christmas in hospital, at home with us or sometimes has been able to travel with us to relatives. Each of these scenarios presents its own set of worries.
“When he has been too unwell to leave hospital, we have gone to relatives as usual with the feelings of guilt that abandoning him creates.
“It is difficult to enjoy Christmas when you know your son is locked up, however hard the nurses try to make the day special. The reality on these occasions is that his mind was so filled with delusional thoughts that Christmas probably passed him by. At times when he was able to come home from hospital, there was the worry that stress would set off his ‘voices’, always present in some form, which was distressing for everyone.
“Last year was particularly hard, as he was quite psychotic.
“When he appeared for the day, he was convinced we were going to his mansion where his wife and relatives were waiting. All this of course was false; he has neither a wife nor big house in the country. To convince him of this, when he had presents bought for all these people, was a heartbreaking job. This year he is much improved, with enough insight to realise that most of his past ideas are untrue. But the ‘voices’ still come and go and who knows what they will say at Christmas. Such is the unpredictability of this chronic illness. I think we will all be relieved when the Christmas festivities are over.”
Colin Leslie, Fundraising Mananger at Support in Mind Scotland