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Holiday season breeds feelings of loneliness and depression for some


‘Tis the season to be jolly, right?
Fa la, la, la, la.

So what happened to Lawrence G. who fell so far down in the dumps that the Chilean miners would shake their heads in sympathy? As it turns out, Lawrence lost his mother during the holidays last year, and he’s missing her greatly this season.

And what of Terri B. who charged so much on her credit card that she’ll probably wind up eating dinners of Cheerios for the next six months? She’s depressed over the large debt she’s created.
Also, consider the plight of Cheryl M., a freshman college student stranded in Los Angeles for Christmas because she doesn’t have the money to get home to Chicago.

As we look at holiday revelers sporting their reds, greens and whites, the cheery colors we usually associate with Christmas, it is wise to remember that there are some who are seeing only the blues–the holiday blues.

Helen A. Mendes Love, Ph.D., formerly practiced in the Los Angeles area but is now based near Houston. She has a doctorate from UCLA and has served on the faculties at that university, Pepperdine University and the Hunter College of Social Work at the City University of New York. She is the author of several books including her latest, “Reflections on the Upside of Aging.”
Love recalled a client who found herself depressed during a recent Christmas. We’ll call her Yolanda.

Yolanda wanted a divorce and eventually left her husband. She loved him, recalled Love, but she was very unhappy in the marriage. Initially, she felt good about the divorce, but she hadn’t anticipated the change in mood over the holidays. And since she hadn’t worked out whom she would spend time with during holidays, she was not prepared for the realization that her ex would not be with her. The season only worked to reinforce her negative feelings.

“She learned to anticipate for the next year,” said Love, so Yolanda hosted a dinner for some of her single friends who also had no one to spend the holidays with.

“A lot of people are sad because they’ve lost a job or a loved one or a relationship, or they’ve lost their health,” said Love. “All of that contributes to the sadness around this time of year. African Americans tend to have high statistics in the loss of jobs and problems with health.”

Depending on where one lives, she added, they may have to deal with a high incidence of crime, which can add to the feeling of isolation and loneliness.

Los Angeles psychotherapist Doris G. Morgan agrees.

“This year I would think that maybe more people will demonstrate the blues or minor depression,” said Morgan, founder of Lifebuilders Counseling Service. “I attribute that to the economic situation that the country is going through, with so many people moving and going into new environments looking for employment or to get away from conditions where they were before.

“I believe that Blacks are affected more by holiday blues than any other group,” she said. “Many aspects of just being Black, when our people dwell on what they have lost, or what they think they will never regain, automatically leads to depression.”

Morgan said depression is a condition that can cause biological as well as mental symptoms. It’s a sense that you are living a hopeless life, and there is nothing in the future that will change. You see everything as hopeless. When you talk to people who are depressed, you can try to cheer them up, but they will always have a ‘but.’”

Depending on the severity of depression, Morgan said, she may involve a client with a psychiatrist, “because a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can prescribe meds. While the psychiatrist is working on the medical side I am working on psychological and behavioral side.”

Mental Health America, formerly the National Mental Health Association, reports that there are numerous reasons people fall into a funk during this season, and they range from fatigue to financial challenges to family problems to pining for deceased loved ones.

“People often hold on to what they remember as an ideal holiday from years gone by, and are unable to reproduce it,” said Jill RachBeisel, M.D., director of community psychiatry at the University of Maryland Medical Center in an article on the center’s website called “Beating the Holiday Blues.” There are also expectations around the holidays that everything must be perfect, and perfection is, of course, rarely obtainable.

“The holidays are associated with family and togetherness,” said RachBeisel, who is also an associate professor of psychiatry. “In today’s world of high divorce rates and fragmented family units, stress is commonly experienced as family members attempt to find some compromise in defining shared time.”

To many, the reasons for holiday blues seem to be as varied as the number of people on the planet.

According to a paper by Mental Health America titled “Holiday Depression and Stress,” many factors can cause the holiday blues: Stress, fatigue, unrealistic expectations, over-commercialization, financial constraints, and the inability to be with family and friends. The demands of shopping, parties, family reunions and house guests can also contribute to feelings of tension.

And the fact is that even more people experience holiday letdown after Jan. 1, according to the paper, a condition known as post-holiday blues.

But a stranger condition occurs in some who suffer mentally when the seasons change, a disorder called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The problem results from being exposed to fewer hours of sunlight as the days shorten during the winter months. As treatment, some clinicians offer phototherapy, which involves a few hours of exposure to intense light or early morning sunlight to be effective.

Holiday blues is fairly common, said Tenika Jackson, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in working with adolescents. Her practice, which is located in Westwood, is called Reframing Difference, but she does a lot of community mental health work.

“I’ve seen it more in the residential setting, where children were separated from their families as wards of the court or in foster families,” said Jackson. “I’ve also seen it in people who didn’t have a good relationship with their families or if they lost loved ones, because the holidays reminded them of what they were missing in their lives. The holidays usually symbolize togetherness and family, so that made it difficult for them.

“The other scenario is where people live away from their families. They might have moved to another state, or may be estranged, so they are not close to their families. Rather than it being a happy time for them, it’s a lonely time.”

Jackson recalled the case of a 16-year-old African American young lady from a residential facility or group home.

“Over the years she had gone to various foster homes, but they didn’t work,” said Jackson. Then they placed her in a residential facility. Her mother was addicted to drugs and there was a lot of physical abuse, which was why she was taken away.

“But it’s interesting with children that they always have a connection with their family no matter how they were treated. They always long for that love. So around the holidays she would act out more, because she was sad and angry that she could not be with her family. We would see an increase in her negative behaviors–fighting, throwing furniture, yelling, the use of profanity–but it always happened around the holidays. The last time I worked with her she was turning 18 and leaving the group home, so I lost contact with her.

An article by Nancy Schimelpfening on the About.Com website noted that “the primary reason for holiday stress is unrealistic expectations.

“From the time we are children,” wrote Schimelpfening, “we start to build up expectations of what Christmas should be. In the media, we see perfect images of family, friends, food, parties, and gifts. What we fail to see is that these are only staged scenes. We may all aspire to be Martha Stewart, but the reality will probably be closer to Erma Bombeck. What we have to realize is that there’s nothing wrong with falling short of perfect.”

Mental Health America offers a list of depressive symptoms and suggests that anyone dealing with (or has dealt with) five or more of such symptoms everyday for two weeks or more should seek professional help. If recurring thoughts of death or suicide are present, seek help immediately, it suggests. (See box for list.)

One thing that separates the methods of Love and Morgan from other therapists is that they use biblical precepts in their counseling. Love’s website puts it this way: She “encourages people to cooperate with God in solving stressful personal, marital, family and work-relationship problems.”

Love is founder of the Mendes Consultation Services, which publishes a monthly newsletter called “The Encourager.” This month’s issue deals with the subject, “Overcoming the Holiday Blues.”

To overcome the blues, she advises toward the end of her newsletter: “Allow God to comfort you. Talk with God about your sadness. Matthew 7:7 tells us: “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.”

Basing some of her therapy on Romans 12:1-2, where the Scripture discusses being transformed by the renewing of your mind, Morgan attempts to get clients to focus on some of their achievement rather than negative thoughts. “I try to let them know what they are already achieving and what they’ve overcome, so that they know there is hope,” she said. “I have people recognize their uniqueness. It’s not hopeless. God did not make any duplicates, and nobody can replace anyone else. When people recognize (that), they start believing they have value and that will give them hope.”

Addendum: During Sunday service at my own church, the pastor began to speak on the blues some people feel during this time of year. He mentioned that those most susceptible were people whose attention was always focused on themselves. He also noted that some people complain that they don’t feel love or loved, “but love is a relationship,” he explained. “If you ever feel lonely, it’s just a spirit trying to confuse you. You are not alone. Get your attention off you, and get it on God.”

At the conclusion of the service, he encouraged anyone feeling lonely or depressed to raise their hand. Don’t let embarrassment hold you back, he said. We’re all family. Out of the 70 or 80 persons present, about five raised their hands. All were women, but it was clear to me that there probably were others who didn’t raise their hands, and some of those were men too self-conscious or too macho to admit they, too, were lonely or depressed.