While we’re conditioned to believe and assume that Christmas is a time for joy and happiness for everyone, that’s not always the case. 

Around one in four people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year, and around one in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem – such as anxiety and depression – in any given week. 

According to the World Health Organisation, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and a major contributor to suicide and ischaemic heart disease.

Christmas can be a challenging time for all of us when it comes to managing our stress levels – but it can be even harder for those of us struggling with our mental health.

So indy100 reached out to mental health experts and organisations around the UK for tips and advice on how people can try to stay on top of things this festive period.

1. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’.

Between the alcohol, the food, the late nights, the staring at screens and just the general excess that are so often associated with Christmas, sometimes we need to take a step back and make time for self-care for the sake of our mental health. 

“Lack of sleep, too much alcohol and comfort food can all come together forming a perfect storm that can hit your mental health hard,” explained Cal Strode from the Mental Health Foundation. 

“Try to balance your sense of social obligations against your need for self-care time and ask yourself if there are any things you might need to give a miss this Christmas.”

Remember that it’s okay to say no to things. Giving yourself permission to say no, and practising saying it is good self-care, helping us to avoid self-abandonment. It might be going to see someone you don’t really want to see, or taking on the stress of organising and hosting a big gathering.

“Take time for the simple things that we all know are good but often forget. Eating nourishing food or going for a run even when it’s minus three degrees outside, can really help to sustain your mental health over the Christmas break.

“Talking about how you’re doing can improve your mood and make it easier to deal with the tough times. It’s part of taking charge of our mental wellbeing and doing what we can to stay healthy.”

Donning a Christmas jumper can make us feel pretty special but none of us are superhuman.

“At times we all get overwhelmed by how we feel, especially when things go wrong. If things are getting too much for you in the next few weeks and you feel like you can’t cope, ask for help. Samaritans are available to speak to all year round – their free helpline number is 116 123 and calls to this number do not appear on phone bills.”

2. Make sure you have a support network. 

One of the best ways to avoid the pressures and stress of Christmas might just be to take yourself out of Christmas altogether.

“Life can be challenging at times and when you’re living with a mental health problem, the ups and downs of day-to-day life can be that much harder to manage,” Stephen Buckley, head of information for mental health charity Mind, told indy100.  

“For many people, Christmas is something to look forward to, but for others, the huge emphasis to spend Christmas with family and friends can intensify feelings of loneliness and isolation. Christmas can also intensify financial worries and the pressure to have ‘the perfect Christmas’. Research last year by Mind found the consequence of this left one in ten people feeling unable to cope at Christmas.”

Ensuring there’s a support network around you over the festive period can be vital if you are not feeling so good. We know that over half of people who have experienced depression or anxiety isolate themselves from loved ones.

“Although it is clear that many need extra support at Christmas, Mind research found half of people with a mental health problem did not feel they had someone to confide in over the festive period if they needed to (58 per cent).

“If you find Christmas a particularly difficult time to manage your mental health try to take time out to do something you enjoy such as exercise or a hobby.”

Don’t feel guilty about doing something completely unrelated to the festivities – time for yourself is just as important. You can read more about Mind’s tips over the Christmas period at mind.org.uk/christmas.

If you don’t have a support network around you and are worried about spending Christmas on your own, Mind says there are some practical things you can think about over the festive period.

  • Take a break  If you are feeling bombarded by external pressure to be spending money, socialising and having a good time over the festive period, you could consider taking a break from technology and set aside some time each day to do something else you enjoy like reading a book, doing some physical exercise and getting outside.
  • Get creative – Take a break from festivities by getting crafty. If you are looking for an alternative to boozy activities embrace your crafty side and make your new festive tradition holding a ‘Crafternoon’, the largest craft-based mental health fundraiser in the country.
  • Feeling connected to other people is important – it can help you to feel valued and confident about yourself and can give you a different perspective on things. If you can, try to spend more time with loved ones, peers or colleagues.
  • Keep in touch with neighbours, family and friends – even if you won’t be seeing anyone face-to-face, contact by email, sending a text, or phoning someone can make a big difference.
  • Connect online – if you don’t have a supportive network around, you could try joining a local community group or an online safe space. Mind’s supportive online community Elefriends means no one is ever alone – it’s a safe place to listen, share and be heard, 24 hours a day, all year round, including Christmas.
  • Volunteering – helping out with a charity or good cause can help you feel good, and give you a chance to meet people. For information on local volunteering opportunities visit do-it.org.uk which lists volunteer positions within 5km of your postcode, ask at your local library, or keep an eye on your local newspapers.

3. Don’t be afraid to talk about your feelings.

Celebrating the “most wonderful time of the year” can be especially hard when you identify as LGBT+. Going back home for many queer people can mean going back into the closet and hiding their true selves from family members or even old friends – these feelings of isolation and loneliness can intensify to almost unmanageable degrees.

LGBT+ people are at a much higher risk of experiencing a mental health problem than the wider population. And according to charity Stonewall, eight out of 10 young trans people have self-harmed and almost half have attempted suicide. 

It’s why indy100 approach Switchboard, the historic LGBT+ helpline, for their advice on how LGBT+ people can stay on top of their mental health when they’re going home for the holidays.

“Christmas can often be a difficult time for lots of people with feelings of isolation and loneliness often magnified,” Natasha Walker, Switchboard trustee, told us, “as well as a very complicated time emotionally for LGBT+ people who aren’t out, or who are and have difficulties with family and friends accepting them.

“The statistics speak for themselves in relation to LGBT+ people experiencing mental health problems, 40 per cent compared to 25 per cent in the wider community.”

I think we’re all aware of how mental health is being spoken about more and of course more people are out now than 20 years ago, 40 years ago… let alone 50 years ago when there was the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. If we have learnt anything it’s how essential it is to talk about your feelings, and that’s what we at Switchboard are here for. 

Whether you have questions about sexuality and/or gender identity, or you just want someone to talk to, Switchboard is a confidential helpline, here to listen and support people. Over the Christmas period, they are going to be open daily 10 am to 10 pm and you can contact them on 0300 330 0630, instant messenger at switchboard.lgbt or email on chris@switchboard.lgbt.

4. Remember that there will always be other Christmases.

Jonny Benjamin’s story captured the country’s imagination in 2014. He was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder – a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar – at the age of 20, and began making films on YouTube about the condition that have since been watched by hundreds of thousands of people.

In 2008, he stood on Waterloo Bridge in London and prepared to kill himself, feeling like he couldn’t see any way out from his mental health problems – but thankfully, a passing Good Samaritan persuaded Jonny not to take his own life. Jonny was taken to hospital and didn’t see the stranger who talked him down, but in 2014 he launched the #FindMike campaign so he could reunite with the man who saved his life. 

That man turned out to be Neil Laybourn, and the pair has since worked together around the world to raise awareness, change attitudes, reduce stigma and better equip future generations to work through their mental health issues. 

Having struggled with his own mental health for so many years, Jonny knows that Christmas can be tough, but there are ways to get through it. 

“‘There will be other Christmases.’ That’s what I tell myself now whenever I’m unwell at Christmas,” he tells indy100. 

A couple of times I have spent the festive season in hospital and felt guilty for not being there to celebrate with family and friends. But nowadays I try not to give myself a hard time and say to myself that next year will be different. And it usually is.”

It’s almost like I have a double celebration that following Christmas when I’m better – one externally with everyone around me, and one internally with myself. It’s a victory for me, and we have to celebrate the victories in our mental health battles when they happen!

“It really is OK to avoid all the Christmas festivities around you if you’re feeling anything but festive in yourself. It’s called self-care. And I think that’s the most important gift you can give at Christmas if you’re struggling.”

More information. 

Visit www.mind.org.uk/christmas for more information and tips about coping at Christmas. Mind’s infoline is open 9 am to 6 pmMonday to Friday (except for bank holidays). 0300 123 3393

Samaritans are also on hand to provide emotional support to anyone in distress, struggling to cope or at risk of suicide. Anyone can contact Samaritans any time for free, from any phone, on 116 123. This number is free to call and will not show up on your phone bill. You can also email jo@samaritans.org or go to samaritans.org to find details of your local branch where you can talk to one of our trained volunteers face to face.

More: 9 things people with mental illnesses want you to understand

More: These are the mental health symptoms you should never ignore

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