By Irene Toto, LMHC, CEO of Clay Behavioral Health Center
It’s no secret that the holiday season can be stressful, exhausting and even depressing. For many people, the dissonance between Hallmark Channel expectations and personal reality is crushing – and several years of a pandemic, accompanied by an opioid epidemic plus economic and political upheaval, have only made things worse.
Fortunately, there is a silver lining to the holiday cloud. Whether you are feeling the strain yourself or reaching out to help friends and neighbors weather the holiday blues, you will probably interact with more folks than usual over the next few weeks, and those encounters can be the greatest gift of the holidays.
Social interaction has enormous benefits for both our state of mind and our physical health. Study after study shows that the strongest predictors of quality of life, mental acuity and longevity revolve around other human beings. Exercise and “clean eating” are much lower on the scale than relationships – and close ties are important, but so are more casual connections such as greeting your mail carrier or chatting with the barista at your favorite coffee shop.
Just as importantly, increased social activity at this time of year gives us more opportunities to converse with friends, neighbors and family members. Whether it’s dinnertime dialogue, preparing holiday treats, or visiting at the annual company party, the season gives us chances to not only catch up but to also gauge how people are really feeling.
Being together gives us a chance to ask “How are you doing?” with genuine curiosity – and then follow up if a friend, family member – even a stranger – doesn’t seem to be doing well. Sometimes, people will be surprisingly candid about their state of mind. Other times, the conversation is a little less direct. In either case, gatherings provide opportunities to talk. And talking can be the first step in connecting folks with mental health care that can make a world of difference.
If you feel uncomfortable having those talks or encounter someone in dire need of help – such as a person contemplating suicide – those conversations can feel difficult, if not impossible. Fortunately, there are proven techniques that promote constructive results, and a local initiative called Talkable Communities (TC) provides free mental health trainings to help.
TC is a collaboration among five behavioral health providers in six North Florida counties. Based on the idea that it takes a village to promote mental and emotional wellbeing, they offer three courses. Two of them specifically address how to aid young people at risk for mental illness, substance use and suicide. The third – “Question. Persuade. Refer.”—teaches participants how to recognize the warning signs of a suicide crisis at any age, and then help that person get appropriate help. You can find more information about the TC partners and course offerings online at TalkableCommunities.org.
With rates of depression and anxiety rising throughout our region, and suicide becoming a leading cause of death in our nation, we all need to step up and help connect our neighbors, co-workers and loved ones with the resources they need to be safe and feel better. If the holiday season makes that easier, it will truly be a gift for all concerned.
With more than 30 years’ experience in the mental health field, Irene M. Toto, LMHC, is CEO of Clay Behavioral Health Center, a partner in the Talkable Communities Initiative.