Coping with the Challenges of Mental Illness During the Holidays

(BPT) - During the holiday season, many look forward to festivities and spending time with family, but for some, this time of year can be overwhelming and stressful. People living with mental health challenges may have an especially difficult time during this season as it can cause feelings of isolation and sadness. According to a survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of people with mental illness say the holidays make their conditions worse.

Philadelphia native Jeff S. was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 17, and while he has found ways to live with his condition, Jeff says this time of year is tough for him as he has lost loved ones during the holidays, which he is reminded of each year.

"When I think of the holidays, I think of family members who I’ve lost. I recall fondly waking up when I was younger to the pleasing aroma of stuffing as my mother began preparing dinner for all her relatives. When my mother was living in an assisted living facility, she gave me a ticket to have a holiday meal with her a couple weeks before the holiday, but we never were able to have it since she passed away unexpectedly,” said Jeff. “Eight years before losing my mother, my brother, Paul, passed away unexpectedly two days before New Year’s. This makes the days seem much longer than any other day, and I usually can’t wait for them to be over."

Jeff says, "people with mental health issues may have the additional suffering of not having families of their own or close by. These realities can cause them to feel separated from their relatives and society."

In addition to managing his mental health, Jeff started experiencing abnormal movements he couldn’t control and was later diagnosed with a condition called tardive dyskinesia (TD). TD, one of the many challenges associated with mental illness, causes uncontrollable movements in the face, arms, hands and other body parts, and can have a devastating effect on patients.

"My TD symptoms include grimacing, movements of my face and mouth and trouble walking," Jeff explains. "They become more pronounced and frequent during the holidays due to the extra stress I feel, and they are a reminder that I don’t live a normal a life."

TD affects at least 500,00 people in the U.S. and is associated with long-term use of antipsychotic treatments commonly prescribed to treat mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. Living with the unpredictable movements of TD can make one’s day-to-day activities, like holding a cup of coffee or driving, more difficult. TD may be disruptive and negatively impact people causing embarrassment and social isolation.

Jeff has found ways to help him cope with the challenges he faces while managing his mental health and movement disorder around the holidays and shares these tips to help others:

1. Find your passion that empowers you

"I’m passionate about my faith. It gives me strength and hope to carry on with my life, especially during the holidays."

Pursue a passion that improves your well-being and helps you feel less isolated.

2. Get involved in your local community

Helping others can make people feel better, especially during the holidays.

Jeff says, "I’ve been very fortunate to be so involved in the community. I have been active at my church, teaching Sunday school to the adults, and minister to the homeless at the shelter."

3. Be honest with your family and friends

The holidays can get the best of us, with a lot of commitments both professionally and personally. "People may get an invitation to a holiday event, yet they don’t show up because they’re feeling down and don’t want to pretend to be happy around others who are celebrating," says Jeff. It’s important to be honest with your loved ones if you aren’t feeling up to attending or need some time to yourself.

4. Have a conversation with your doctor

For those struggling with mental illness and TD, talking to your doctor or mental health professional about your symptoms can be helpful.

Individuals, families and friends should also keep an eye out for signs of mental illness or other challenges their loved ones may be facing. For more information on the movement disorder TD, the website TalkAboutTD.com has resources including tips for talking to your doctor, support for caregivers and more about Jeff’s story.

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