6 Ways Family Can Help Someone With Depression During the Holidays


“Tis the season to struggle with depression — fa la la la la, la, la, la, la.”

One out of four adults in America live with depression or some kind of mental illness in a given year. There are also those who deal with chronic pain, grief, post-traumatic stress — and too many other things to list — that are often enhanced throughout the holidays.

I have major depressive disorder. Here are some of my specific struggles with depression during the holidays:

Unrealistic self-inflicted pressure I put on myself. I quickly embrace the guilt instead of the victories. My wise husband keeps telling me to do what I can, and for that day, what I can do is enough.

I struggle with large groups of people for an extended amount of time — even with people I love and who love me.

I also struggle with one-on-one conversation. Double whammy! My kids sometimes play “name the end of the sentence mom is trying to get out.” Ha!

My anxiety is enhanced from the stress of caring for our two daughters with special needs — and during the holidays, this means in other people’s homes.

I sweat during conversations. Sometimes cry. Sometimes laugh uncontrollably.

I worry about what others (specifically, my family) think — even though I know they love me unconditionally.

Last Christmas we stayed with my sister Amy and her family in Michigan. She and the rest of our family made several accommodations that really helped make the holiday less stressful. So, friends and family who love people who live with mental illness, here are some things my family does to help me during the holidays:

1. They gave space.

I disappear from time to time for an hour or two to retreat to my room during a full day of family. They are fine with it and even pitch in with the girls during my absence. If my husband is busy or just needs a break, all I have to do is say the word and my niece steps in and takes over the care for one of our girls.

2. They’re growing in their discernment.

One time (not at Christmas) we visited my parents and right away my mom could tell I was in a depressive episode. She put me to bed for a rest and helped with the kids.

3. They include me in activities.

Even if I start to laugh and cry uncontrollably, or grow sullen and disengaged within one simple conversation, they still try to include me. They also understand if my husband and I aren’t up for an activity because it will be too taxing on our family.

4. My struggle with depression is no longer an elephant in the room.

My family understands this is an illness. My dad and brother often check in with me to see how I am doing. My sister sees me wilting and steps in and helps where I should be helping. My mom hugs me and offers 100 percent understanding without judgement. Heck, one time my two adult nephews Ben and Will actually came into my room while I wasn’t doing well. I was embarrassed, but they didn’t care. One joked with me until I laughed and the other actually climbed over the bed to give me a hug and told me he loved me.

5. They care for all of our family.

My niece Karli and my brother and his family make sure our older children without special needs have fun by paying loads of attention to them, asking them for sleep overs, going to the movies and, in one of my daughter’s case, taking approximately 100 selfies a visit.

6. They are growing in knowledge, acceptance and love.

Like every family on the planet, mine has all the intricacies of a loving, happy, but messy family. I think we’d all prefer not to deal with my mental illness. At times, they (and husband and I, for that matter) don’t know how to deal with it or how to support us. I know they’d prefer (as would I) the goofy person I can be. But regardless, we all continue to love.

So, we’re going to visit our family for Christmas. As I read through this list, I see growth for all of us. and (dare I say it?) I’m exciting to go.

Writer’s note: I know some people are without family or community. I hope this doesn’t hurt you. You are not alone. Those of us who struggle with depression are here. We can be your community.

I also know there are some families and communities who still don’t understand. They don’t see your illness as an illness. I’m sorry. I can imagine that is very painful. My heart is with you.

Follow this journey on Gillian’s website and pre-order her latest book “Still Life: A Memoir of Living Fully With Depression.”


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