Mental ill health is no respector of the seasons, we might be told that it is the season to be jolly, but for millions of people Christmas is a time which can add to the struggles they have. I sometimes describe living with things such as depression as going through life with a rucksack full of rocks - we can just about manage, until someone puts a new rock on our back. Very often Christmas, and the attendant traditions, parties, spending and consumption, can be that extra rock.

There are quite a few different articles about coping with Christmas, I have written one myself, however here I want to change focus slightly and ask how we all can help so everyone has as good a festive season as they are able to, be it friends, family, children, or partners - we all will know someone for whom Christmas is difficult, and we can all make a difference.

1. Tidings of comfort and joy

If we know someone with depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses we can often assume they would prefer not to be in social situations which can be triggering or stressful. It is indeed the case that some people do need to avoid the Christmas party or get together for their own wellbeing. However, being invited, being remembered, being shown that you are still cared about, can make a huge difference. Even better if when you issue the invitation you ask if there is anything you can do to facilitate their attendance. Someone might be only able to come for half an hour, but that half hour might be a huge victory over the black dog. So, issue the invitation, and when doing so, make clear there is no pressure or presumption, but just an honest desire to see them.

2. Good cheer

Christmas can be a stressful time, where emotions seem to threaten to overwhelm at any moment. It is therefore a sad irony that it also seems to be a time where alcohol consumption becomes apparently mandatory. Alcohol is a depressant, lowers inhibitions and raises emotions. Some people choose to avoid it altogether, others have to because of medication, and others who know they have addiction issues may not feel they can have “just one drink”. Removing the pressure to drink at Christmas would help many, many people. Have soft drinks at any party, and ensure no one is made to feel shamed or conspicuous for opting for the non alcoholic option. Even better if you make clear beforehand there is no obligation to drink, and have some fun non alcoholic drinks such as mocktails on offer. 

3. Some figgy pudding

Related to my second point, food can be a huge trigger for many people at Christmas. If someone isn't eating enough, or if someone is eating too much (and who decides these arbitrary measures anyway), the entire world seems to believe they can pass comment. Unless you are part of someone's immediate support network around disordered food issues (and only with their permission) how much or little someone is eating is not something to comment on. That also applies to diet suggestions and other weight related comments. 

4. All is calm

Some people might need to avoid socialising altogether in order to best self-care, whether that means staying in their room during a family visit, or ducking the Christmas party. It would be wonderful if terms like unsociable or party-pooper could be permanently ditched from our language. Until that happens, perhaps we can simply recognise that different people have different needs. Check in with someone who looks like they need to be alone (remember point 1, it's still great to be invited), but then respect their choice.

5. In the bleak midwinter

Christmas can be especially hard for some. Many LGBTQ+ people cannot go home, simply because it is not safe. Those who have lost a loved one, the elderly, survivors of abuse who have had to go no contact, and many others, may feel pretty bleak. It can be incredibly helpful just to know that it is OK not to be OK. Instead of being shamed for not visiting their family, or being full of Christmas cheer, let those people around you know that however they feel, and however they do Christmas is OK with you. It might feel like a small thing, but simply saying: “I know some people struggle at Christmas, how are you doing?” can be the best Christmas present of all.

Karen Pollock is a verified therapist in Stocksfield

Further reading

Meet the therapist: Karen Pollock

Coping with memories of loss at Christmas

Give kindness this Christmas

The 12 wellbeing days of Christmas

Self-care for the Christmas period