AS December’s chill settles over Scotland, streets are aglow with festive lights and the shopping centre air is filled with the scent of Christmas. Yet, beneath the festive veneer, many of us grapple with the less spoken-about aspect of this season – the impact on mental health. The festive season, for all its merriment, can also be a period of profound struggle for many.

Reflecting back to my childhood, I remember how Christmas was portrayed as a time of unbridled joy. As a child I had no idea of the undercurrent of stress in adults around me. But, for some children that was far from their experience, they were very aware, and that’s one reason why now grown up, they themselves may face Christmas time with dread.

Often adults work hard to ensure they keep it as magical as possible for the kids. That’s what we often do isn’t it, put on a mask for the sake of others. We desire that magic, it’s often the thing that keeps us going too, seeing the joy on others’ faces, the thought of how they may react. But the façade is often just that for some.

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The festive season can often bring to the surface all the things we spend all year trying to keep at bay – loneliness, financial strain, and the pressure to conform to societal expectations of happiness.

Today, as an MSP I see these pressures persist, compounded by the lingering effects of the pandemic and the increasing cost of living, the news with images of war and destruction. Christmas, while a time of celebration for many, can amplify feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression. I see this reflected in my casework. The expectation to be merry can feel like an overwhelming burden, especially for those who are dealing with loss, strained relationships, or financial hardship.

The pressure to conform to commercialised ideals of gift-giving and elaborate celebrations can be overwhelming, particularly for those already grappling with financial difficulties. The bombardment of media images portraying an idealised version of Christmas further complicates matters, setting unrealistic standards that many struggle to meet.

For those already struggling with mental health issues, the disruption of regular support systems during the holiday season can be particularly challenging. Many services operate on reduced schedules, and the closure of support groups or therapy sessions can leave individuals feeling particularly vulnerable.

It’s crucial to acknowledge that mental health doesn’t adhere to a seasonal calendar. The festive cheer doesn’t automatically dispel the clouds of anxiety or depression. The first step in addressing this is recognition – recognition that it’s okay not to be okay, even during Christmas. It’s essential, during this time, to remind ourselves and others that it’s okay to feel off during Christmas.

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It’s okay to step back, to say no, to do things differently, or to not partake in the festivities at all if that’s what feels right. Self-care should be a priority, and it’s crucial to find what works best for each of us, whether that’s maintaining routines, seeking quiet moments, or engaging in activities that bring personal joy, irrespective of traditional festive norms.

In Scotland, I can already see a culture of checking in on each other. I would love to cultivate that and see it reflected in policy, local and national. Understanding that the most vulnerable often suffer in silence. A simple act of reaching out, a phone call, a message, or even a visit, can make a world of difference to someone struggling silently.

This season, let’s broaden the spirit of Christmas to include empathy, understanding, and an openness to the diverse emotional experiences of those around us.

Here are some p tips for coping with the festive season I found from some great resources online:

  1. Financial Management: Create a budget for Christmas spending. It’s okay not to partake in lavish gift-giving. Handmade gifts, or the gift of time and experience, can be more meaningful.
  2. Self-Care: It’s vital to take time for yourself. If the festive hustle becomes overwhelming, step back and engage in activities that bring you peace, whether it’s a walk in nature or a quiet evening with a book.
  3. Setting Boundaries: It’s okay to say no. You don’t have to attend every gathering or meet every demand placed upon you.
  4. Seeking Support: If you feel overwhelmed, reach out for help. There’s no shame in talking to a mental health professional. Local support groups and online communities can also offer solace and understanding.
  5. Inclusivity in Celebration: If you’re hosting, be mindful of guests who might find the season challenging. Simple gestures like providing a quiet space or being flexible with plans can help everyone feel more comfortable.
  6. Remembering Those Not With Us: If you’re grieving or missing someone, find a way to honour them as part of your celebration, perhaps through a special ornament or a dedicated moment of remembrance.
  7. After Christmas: Plan something to look forward to in the New Year. It could be as simple as a get-together with friends or a personal treat.

There are some incredible resources online and over the phone. I would like to share some contacts which may be useful if you or someone you are worried about need help.

The NHS 24 Mental Health Hub can be reached at 111 outside GP hours. The Samaritans offer a listening ear 24/7 at 116 123, and Breathing Space provides support at 0800 83 85 87. For immediate text-based assistance, SHOUT can be contacted at 85258. Children and young people can reach out to Childline at 0800 1111. CALM’s helpline (0800 58 58 58) and webchat service are open from 5 pm to midnight daily.

In embracing the true spirit of Christmas, let’s also advocate for greater accessibility to mental health resources and support systems. It’s crucial to ensure that those in need have access to the help they require, not just during the festive season, but throughout the year.