"What I've learned about mental health at Christmas"

Catriona Harvey-Jenner
·6-min read
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

Christmas truly is 'the most wonderful time of the year' for some people, but for others it can be a challenge - even without a global pandemic to deal with. And when it seems the rest of the world is sparkling with cheer, the festive season can feel like an even tougher time to be struggling with mental health.

New research from Samaritans shows that some of the biggest concerns facing callers this Christmas include the prospect of being separated from family and loved ones over the festive period, financial worries about the expense of Christmas, and fears over the wellbeing of loved ones.

But it's important to remember that, however lonely you can feel in the depths of your mental health problems, there really is always someone there to talk to. Trained Samaritans volunteers are always on hand to take calls at any time of year, and around 1,500 of them are expected to be available on Christmas Day this year. Yup, that's a lot of supporters ready and waiting to help.

To help gain some perspective about any struggles you might be dealing with at the moment, we spoke to nine angel Samaritans volunteers to find out the most important lessons they've learned about mental health at Christmas through all the valuable work they've done...

"It feels like you can't escape the enormity of Christmas"

"For several years I covered the 2am-5am shift on Christmas morning. Something I noticed was how little the callers mentioned Christmas. There is always such a huge build-up - in the shops, on the radio, in workplaces, in adverts - it feels like you can't escape the enormity of it. But for a lot of the callers who contact us in the small hours of Christmas morning, it is just another day of struggle. There is no excitement, anticipation, joy or feeling of belonging. I always found this a sobering and grounding perspective. I felt privileged to sit beside these people, while others wake up to celebrations." - Sally, 28, South West Herts

"Mental health issues can be heightened"

"Christmas is generally a very happy time for many. But for some it can be extremely difficult - not everyone has a warm home and a loving family, and loneliness, isolation and mental health issues can be heightened. Volunteering with Samaritans has shown me a very different reality. Our callers need a listening ear and a kind voice. It's so rewarding to be able to be there for people who need us now. It makes you extremely humble and grateful for the things we often take for granted in our own lives." - Eve, 28, Dublin

"There’s a lot of anxiety from all the ‘new year, new you’ messaging"

"The sense that some people are feeling acutely alone comes through very clearly in the run up to Christmas. Most people I tend to speak to in December are just focused on getting through the year. Once Christmas has passed there’s a lot of anxiety about what the new year might bring, and the pressure that ‘new year, new you’ messaging can inadvertently create. Given the social restrictions in place this year, there’s also a lot of stress and conflict surrounding which family members will get to see each other, and who may miss out." - Lucy, 32, Oxford

"Regular activity and routine is so important"

"I’ve found volunteering over Christmas really rewarding and what is especially poignant is being there for people in need when most things - shops, cafes and other support organisations - are closed. Mental health challenges, trauma and suicidal thoughts don’t stop just because it’s Christmas, and regular activity and routine is so important. I am so proud to be a Samaritan, and to help provide that consistent support, 24/7. At the end of what has been such a difficult year, I think a lot of people will value ‘presence’ over ‘presents’." - Ashleigh, 34, Taunton

"It's important not to place expectations on anyone to express joy"

"The festive period can be very revealing for many - for example sources of tension within families, or a struggle with financial difficulties. With this in mind it's really important that we don't place expectations on anyone to express joy and remember that everyone will experience this period differently. Empathy goes a long way during this time." - Gbemi, 28, Croydon

"Christmas is a time that can feel desperately lonely"

"Christmas is a time where we remember those who are no longer with us, a time to reflect on the hardships of the last 12 months, and a time that can feel desperately lonely. There’s so much pressure – socially, emotionally and finically and sometimes this can be a big burden for people to carry – so we find a lot of people just need to talk, and to feel like it isn’t just them finding the festive period hard." - Jenny, 28, Bolton

"Take the time to recognise that Christmas doesn't fix everything"

"This time of year can put a huge amount of pressure on people to show they're happy. If people don't feel that way, they can end up feeling exhausted and incredibly isolated, whether or not they have people around them. Taking the time to recognise that we're all human, that Christmas doesn't fix everything and might actually make things harder for a number of reasons, can mean a great deal to people." - Charlie, 31, London

"It can be hard to admit you're not enjoying this time of year"

"It can be really hard to admit you're struggling or not enjoying this time of year, but a lot of people have mixed feelings around the holidays and that’s okay. It’s good to talk to someone about them, getting everything off your chest, to help you get through this time. It’s always a busy time. Being there for people, at a time when they think there is nobody else to talk to, is so rewarding and really does make a difference." - Helen, 39, Liverpool

"Even if they seem okay, it can be a difficult time of year"

"Don’t underestimate what a difficult time of year Christmas and New Year is for some, even if they seem okay. There is a lot of pressure to put on a happy face or ‘act like things are normal’ for the sake of family or friends. Don’t be afraid to ask your mum how she’s really feeling if you find her in the kitchen crying over the gravy." - Rachel, 30, London

Samaritans is asking people to send a Christmas gift to help the charity continue to be there for those who need emotional support. Making a donation for as little as £5 will help Samaritans answer a call for help from somebody struggling this Christmas.

Anyone can contact Samaritans FREE any time from any phone on 116 123, even a mobile without credit. This number won’t show up on your phone bill. Or you can email jo@samaritans.org or visit www.samaritans.org.

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