Holidays and Recovering from Mental Illness

Surviving Halloween is not something I take lightly. I experienced visual and auditory hallucinations many years before receiving my schizoaffective disorder diagnosis. I thought I was receiving some sort of communication from a spirit world. Halloween is a difficult holiday for me even though I've been on medication for over a decade now. Here are some of my experiences and how I've coped.
Recovery from mental illness is possible, but it can be surprisingly more difficult than expected. Many may believe that the new year is an ideal time to recover from mental illness as it can be a time of reflection, goal setting, excitement and new beginnings, but it can also be a time of pressure to change, share what is going to be new and believe things you may not necessarily agree with. We hear, "What is your New Year’s resolution?" hundreds of times during the months of December and January and we may think it is going to motivate us to overcome our mental illness. But a time of year doesn’t determine if recovery from a mental illness is possible, a decision does.
Recovering from a mental illness during the holidays can be more difficult than recovering at any other time of year. The holiday season can bring additional financial, personal, and emotional stress as well as a sense of overwhelming anxiety. Seeing family members, having to purchase gifts, and juggling the added responsibilities during the holidays are all not conducive to recovering from mental illness. But recovering from mental illness over the holidays is possible with a plan and awareness of what the holidays may bring up for you.
I've been thinking about caring for your mental health white traveling as I'm writing this on a train, traveling from Montreal to New York City as part of a vacation. While travel within the country is much simpler than travel out of the country, the following vacation tips are good advice for caring for your mental health while traveling.
If your holiday is making you depressed, you should know this is actually pretty common. While it is a mental health myth that the suicide rate goes up during Christmas, that does not negate the fact that many people find the holidays to be a drag. It's okay to feel that way--holidays are a stressful time, and our culture demands a "perfect" holiday so anything that falls short may seem like a personal failure (What Is Holiday Depression?). But the good news is you don't have to have a "perfect" holiday, and there are things to try if your holiday is making you depressed.
Halloween can be a fun holiday, but Halloween can also spread myths about mental illness. The main ones all have to do with stigma--that we are violent and unpredictable, that hospitalization is traumatic and abusive, and that there is no such thing as recovery. Mental illness is the only medical condition shown for shock value on Halloween--you never see haunted cancer wards, for example. Here are some myths Halloween spreads about mental illness and how to combat them.
Fireworks and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are a problem July 4th. I enlisted in the Army during the height of the Iraq War and was high on the list to go. Long story short, a health condition forced my discharge, but not before I watched people suffer nervous breakdowns and try to piece themselves back together in a hostile psychiatric system (What Is Combat PTSD?). That's one thing that weighs heavily on my heart as the Fourth of July approaches--the number of veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder who will be triggered by fireworks.
There are many ways to deal with holiday depression. While it is a myth that the suicide rate goes up during the holidays, holiday depression is no joke. Between the lack of adequate sunlight, the stress of being with our loved ones (I have four nephews and one niece age five and under), and loneliness at the absence of loved ones (my grandfather died on Christmas Eve when I was a child), we have a perfect storm for emotional over-stimulation. So, here are three ways to deal with holiday depression.
I have a mental health Christmas list. There's a popular Christmas song called My Grown-Up Christmas List. In the song, the musician sings about a desire for healing, peace, and friendship. In keeping with that spirit, here is my mental health Christmas list.
Mental illness stigma and Halloween go together like hand and glove--we've all seen the "haunted asylums" and the "mental patient" costumes. Rather than trying to censor this mental illness stigmatization at Halloween, we should use it as a teachable moment. We should educate people that psychiatric patients are no more violent than the general population and that we're more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. While there is mental illness stigma around Halloween, we can use it to educate others.