At first glance, the triad of loneliness, depression, and the holidays does not appear accurate, or even appropriate. The reverse is true. If you examine the statistics for loneliness and depression, they rise during the holiday season. There are more outpatient psychiatric visits. There are more psychiatric admissions. There are more suicide attempts. Worse, 90% of loneliness and depression go unnoticed and untreated during the holidays.
Let’s place these statistics into perspective against the larger picture. For loneliness, those people feel isolated, not understood, and not cared for. Research shows that loneliness kills as many people as cigarettes or alcohol. More importantly, our country has a serious problem. One out of five Americans admit they are lonely. Our current population shows that 28% of our adults live alone compared to less than 9% of solo people in 1950s. Our country appears to be moving in the wrong direction, away from personal connection. We appear to be moving away from each other, not toward each other.
Let’s look at depression. Depression rates for today are 10 times higher than they were in 1960. The average age for a person’s first episode of depression used to be 29 years old. Today the average age for a person’s first episode of depression is 14.5 years old. By 2020, the World Health Organization has predicted that depression will be the number one worldwide illness, medical or psychiatric, around the globe. One in ten Americans already take an antidepressant medication – and the rates of depression keep rising: i.e., the solution is not more medications.
How about adolescents? In the past several years there has been an explosion of increased anxiety, depression, and the act of self-cutting in our teenage population. Research shows that there are around 3 million teens who have experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. Further research reveals that there are over 6 million teens with anxiety disorder. In addition, for self-cutting, just the hashtag admissions of self-harm behavior have jumped to 2.4 million in the past year. Those statistics equate to a sizeable number of teenagers who are emotionally in turmoil.
What is causing this picture? There are too many factors to mention. But let’s keep in mind that we all live in the post 9/11 era. For the past 15 years, we have all been subject to economic insecurity and national insecurity. We have witnessed ethnic conflicts, sexism, racism, school shootings, police shootings, random mass murder, and – on a global stage – constant wars with massive destructive. Collectively, these factors are making us a little more fragile, less resilient, and more overwhelmed. We have 24-hour stress.
There is one more component to the larger picture. We live in a fast-paced, hard working society. Work trumps everything. Most parents only spend 4-20 minutes 1:1 with their spouses, and they spend even less time with their children. That means that most lonely or depressed people remain in the dark, never sharing their true feelings or true predicament. When something goes south, the family typically proclaims, “I had no idea!” Consequently, only around 20% of lonely and depressed individuals receive treatment for their condition. That is bad for the individual, but equally bad for society (as we can see on the evening news).
So, why is this topic so important? Animal studies have repeatedly revealed that the mammals with the best / most friends – whether you are discussing monkeys, hyenas, elephants, dolphins, humans, etc. – have the best health. With friendship, the stress hormones are lowered and these mammals feel better emotionally and physically. Your friendship, for your emotional health, are just as important as your diet and exercise.
If you look at the longest living people on the planet, they all have different diets and different exercises, but their common feature is their focus on family. In Sardinia in Italy, centenarians attribute their good health to their good relationships with la famiglia (family). In Okinawa, there is a term ikigai (the reason for waking up each morning); and for them, that term needs to embody the individual’s role in the family. In Costa Rica, there is another phrase, plan de vida, which reminds those individuals of the importance of a sense of purpose for helping others, especially family members. Again and again, the key is family.
So, what happens during the holidays? Let me give you an example. When a patient enters a psychiatric unit, most of them feel immediately better. That happens because so many other patients are worse. It puts their loneliness or depression into perspective. The holidays create the exact opposite effect. All commercials show the happiness of other people. When those individuals, still lonely and depressed, are surrounded by their families, they are overwhelmed by everyone’s happiness versus their own, just-the-opposite, feelings.
Here is what I recommend for the holidays. But first a side-bar point. No families are perfect. All families have dysfunctional relationships with individual conflicts. There is always one relative who is negative and caustic, never satisfied, constantly judgmental, and always willing to dispute some point. My suggestion is to take the high road. It is not easy, but it will make the family reunions far more satisfying. Give them compliments. Switch conversations when conflicts arrive. Ply them with food. Any reduction of the conflict with be worth the effort.
For your starting point, put yourself in the best possible position to enjoy the holidays and help others. It is a time for you to not get distracted from work or other job-related responsibilities. Instead, it’s time to create more time for your family. Let’s take Black Friday as one simple example. What is your primary goal for Black Friday? To give the best present possible? What would happen if you participated in Buy Nothing Day and abstained from the Black Friday chaos? Instead of wasting the day shopping, spend the day with your child. The best holiday gift is to become a better person. That starts by being more available.
When you focus on your family, you need to do more than connect with them on a superficial basis. Ask about their high points and low points in their daily lives. Sometimes they need to discuss the low points, but that occurs with gentle, nonjudgmental prodding. For specific suggestions, talk about the real stuff. Resist getting angry. And offer to help – or suggest seeking help. An individual’s problem is best helped with assistance from the whole family. That’s why many therapists prefer to treat the whole family, not a single patient. Better results.
For lonely people, it is a more difficult challenge as you need to reach outside of your family. If you know of someone lonely in your neighborhood, give them some of your time. Or, if possible, invite them to a family interaction. If they are living alone, give them encouragement to accept a roommate or move to a shared housing. Even a dog has been found to be of significant help. Encourage then to volunteer. Anything that allows for more human contact. Or volunteer yourself to help the socially isolated. Even a short period of contact – a compliment, a helping hand – makes them feel better. Practical help is even better with help of common tasks. Just go slow. You want them comfortable with the interactions.
Lastly, you need to be aware that your physical health greatly impacts your emotional health. If lonely and depressed, or if just wanted to maximize your holidays, maintain good healthy habits through the holidays. Eating lightly between any heavy meals. Try to increase the time between dinner and breakfast for better rejuvenation. Get to sleep before 10:30 pm. Exercising daily. Aerobic exercise and high-intensity exercise. Watch your alcohol consumption. Avoid the high sugar desserts. That will maintain your physical health, reduce your toxicity, and improve your mental health – and your mental perspective.
Give all of these points a try …
Try to have your best holiday season in your life …
It is never too late or too early …