5 Ways to Face the Holidays: Helping a Loved One with Complex Mental Health Disorders

Complex mental health disorders include severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and mental illness combined with substance use disorders. These disorders cause serious symptoms that make normal functioning a challenge. During the holidays it becomes especially difficult to manage symptoms and avoid relapses. Loved ones of those struggling can take steps to make this time easier, safer, and more hopeful.

Living with complex mental health disorders is never easy, but the holiday season presents additional difficulties: stress, pressure, expectations, loneliness and isolation, and the temptations of substance abuse. Statistics indicate that most people with mental illness see their symptoms worsen during the holidays.

If you have a loved one with major mental health challenges, help them face the season by providing support, a safe place, and professional treatment if necessary.

Why Your Loved One is Struggling

In supporting someone with mental illnesses, it helps to understand their perspective. You love them and you want to support them, but when you don’t have the same experiences, it’s difficult to truly empathize or provide what they need. This is especially true if you enjoy the holidays.

Many people have a difficult time from Thanksgiving through the New Year, those with and without mental illness. It’s a well-recognized phenomenon with many explanations:

  • The holidays can be isolating. Some people are with family and get together for parties, but others have limitations and end up isolated from those they care about.
  • Even when not physically isolated, many people feel isolated at this time of year. They see other people enjoying themselves and feel different and alone because they don’t feel the same joy and excitement.
  • There are a lot of expectations during the holidays, to have fun and be joyful, to attend parties and diners, to give the perfect gift, or to make a fancy meal. When someone fails to meet those expectations, it can trigger symptoms.
  • Stress can be massive during the holidays, especially when trying to meet perceived expectations. Stress tends to worsen mental health symptoms and trigger relapses.

Imagine having these struggles during the holidays. Now imagine you have them along with severe symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or psychosis. Trying to manage complex mental illness while coping with the stresses and triggers of the holidays becomes overwhelming for some.

This is a tough time for many people, especially with the COVID-19 crisis ongoing and even worsening. If you have someone in your life who lives with complex mental health disorders, take these steps to help them face the season:

1. Reach Out Regularly.

Social support is an important tool in treatment and recovery from mental illness and substance use disorders. Simply checking in with someone can be enough to keep the worst symptoms at bay. A quick text, a call, or an in-person visit if you can do so safely will help your loved one feel cared about and supported. It may be enough to reassure them that they are not alone and that others do care about how they are faring at this time of year.

Isolation is a problem for many people during the holidays. With quarantine measures in place in many locations, your loved one is at a greater risk of being alone and lonely. Set up virtual get-togethers and spend time together outside. Check in any way that makes sense for both of you. Listen, and let them talk and share.

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2. Help Them Manage Expectations.

Unreasonable expectations rank among the highest of stressors for most people during the holidays. Expectations range from buying the perfect gifts to creating an elaborate meal to simply attending family gatherings with difficult relatives.

Your loved one can really benefit from expectation management. Help them set limits on their holiday schedule and reassure them that it’s ok to miss events or to opt out of gift giving. The stress of expectations can become overwhelming for anyone, not just people with complex mental illness. Whatever you can do to minimize them will help.

If your loved one struggles to let go of these things or feels guilty about opting out, join them. Support them by avoiding that family dinner together or not doing the neighborhood Secret Santa. Limiting holiday activities as a united front will make it easier for your loved one.

3. Ask What You Can Do to Help.

Checking in with and listening to a loved one struggling with mental illness is a powerful, simple way to provide support. To take it a step further, ask what else you can do to help them face the holidays. You may not be able to understand exactly how they feel about the upcoming season, but you can ask.

Instead of guessing what might help them, be direct. You might be surprised to find that cooking a meal provides them with a huge sense of relief. Maybe you are looking forward to a family Christmas dinner, but by asking you find out that they are dreading it. They need you to support their decision to not attend.

4. Try Stress-Management Activities Together.

Even if your loved one knows what they should be doing to manage symptoms and reduce stress this time of year, it’s easy to neglect important self-care. You can help them take the time to exercise, get outdoors, meditate, eat well, and abstain from alcohol by doing these things together.

Unless you live in the same household, COVID-19 makes it more difficult to do things together. It’s not impossible, though. Exercise together outside or try a safely-distanced meditation session in the park. Make healthy meals together on Zoom or attend virtual support groups with each other.

5. Get Your Loved One Into Residential Treatment.

Complex mental health disorders are chronic illnesses that require regular treatment. If your loved one has been out of treatment or is in outpatient therapy and still struggling, help them get into a residential facility. Studies show that short-term therapy is much less effective than long-term treatment for people with complex mental illness.

A stay in a residential facility provides an opportunity for more intensive treatment and a safe environment in which to ride out this difficult time. Your loved one may need a push to get into treatment. Be the push they need by offering options and any practical help they need to take a month or more for real care.

Complex mental health disorders can always flare up or worsen, especially with external triggers and stressors. The holiday season is full of them. Help your loved one face this difficult time of year. Be prepared and supportive in advance of the festivities, and they’ll be less likely to relapse.

If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with complex mental illnesses. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.