How to Combat Loneliness Over the Holidays
Feeling blue? We talked to experts about how to get out of the slump.
In many ways, 2018 was the year of men’s mental health. Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson was outspoken about his struggles with borderline personality disorder and suicidal ideation. Actor Ryan Reynolds was equally forthcoming about his issues with anxiety, and newly released movies like Beautiful Boy, Ben Is Back and Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot feature male protagonists dealing with a combination of depression, alcohol abuse and drug dependence. To the benefit of millions, men’s mental health is being discussed, front and center, in increasingly public ways.
There’s still a lot of ground to break, though, and a lot of men who need help now, not later — the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates more than 6 million American men have depression each year, and are more likely to die by suicide than women. It’s also important to note that you aren’t imagining things: holidays really can make mental health issues more difficult to deal with. Upwards of 64% of people with mental illness report the holidays exacerbating issues they have, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Each individual has unique needs, and you should always discuss your mental health with your doctor. But we talked to some experts about concrete ways you — or the male loved one in your life — can combat loneliness and symptoms of depression over the holidays.
Create a Routine
“I had a job in Chicago where I was working at a residential treatment facility for people who had mental illness and addiction and homelessness, and every holiday was this way — that the days before the holiday were the hardest, and anticipation for what the holiday would bring,” Dr. Shannon Dunn, a licensed social worker and clinical associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California, said in a phone interview. “The holiday wasn’t so bad because we always had a plan to be together, but then the day after was always a little hard, just missing the family.”
This can be especially difficult for men who are veterans and see themselves as a provider who is strong and silent. Veteran or not, it’s vital to have structure, Dunn said, and to get out of the house.
“It’s easy to think, ‘Oh, I don’t have anything to do today, I can lay in bed another hour,’ and then it becomes longer and longer, and that’s going to lead to depression and rumination,” Dunn said. Even writing down what your plan is for the day or week can be helpful as well, and make sure to include finding time to be with others — even if it’s just people-watching at a local diner or mall. For anyone feeling up to it, Dunn said, volunteering can also be helpful.
“The older male military population also has veterans groups, peer groups, peer support groups, [and] there’s volunteer opportunities there, there’s social opportunities, they’re very aware of holiday hum-bum kind of thing and they can be quite supportive during these times.”
Find Connection in Healthy Ways
It’s important to recognize that men’s depression can manifest in different ways than women, according to Dr. Shane’a Thomas, a licensed clinical social worker with expertise in sexuality and self care.
“The ways that men express their emotionality are different from women because how it’s not accepted socially, she said in a phone interview. “So yes, you can see men getting violent or angry or throwing things.
“We can accept that men can be violent, but we can’t accept them crying.”
When it comes to dealing with mental-health issues, Thomas encourages her clients to practice self-awareness and notice patterns in things: How often are you isolating yourself? How often do you have a sad mood?
Especially for people who identify on the queer spectrum, said Thomas, who encourages discussions about where connection to other people is found. Commonly, it’s on dating apps like Tinder and grindr.
“I ask: Let’s examine what these connections are — not to shame them — but also just like, what is this about? What are you getting out of it? Is it fulfilling to you?”
Sometimes, it really is fulfilling, Thomas said — it’s not always enough to watch people from afar. She encourages her clients to be open to unique or unorthodox ways of finding that connection, even if it involves paying someone for a service, because human connection can seriously improve your mental health.
“When’s the last time you had a massage? When’s the last time you got your hair cut?” she said. “When’s the last time you were able to engage in some sort of self care where people are touching you? And yes, you’re paying for it, but there’s plenty of ways people are paying for touch these days. [These people are] also very skilled and knowledgable about how to take care of bodies in a way, especially when you are lacking this access to touch, in a way that may be really affirming.”
Help a Loved One
If you find that you don’t necessarily experience mental-health issues, but are worried that a man in your life does, there are still steps you can take to be supportive.
“Check on them. Simple things: a phone call, sending a holiday card, bringing a pot of soup that a person could eat on for days, inviting them out, going to pick them up and going for a meal out,” Dr. Dunn said. “[These men] may have one straggle of a family member who hasn’t forgotten them,” she said, so answer the phone if that person is you. “Another thing is, sometimes these guys can be neglectful of their own health and when you go in, if you notice any health thing — when’s the last time you checked your blood sugar? Do you need to go the pharmacy and pick up any medicine?”
“I know I’m sounding very simplistic right now, but that’s what’s required for this man. Answer the phone, return the phone call, if the family members invites for a meal, go. If today is not a good day, reschedule for tomorrow.”
Ultimately, we all need to keep our mental health in check, whether we’re the person struggling or the support system.
“Let’s just use 2019 as a way to get help,” Dr. Thomas said. “We are de-stigmatizing therapy, people gathering together, and being able to support each other.”
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