Life

Mental health at Christmas: how to start a conversation with friends and family over the holidays

Talking about your mental health can be an extremely difficult thing to do – here’s some expert tips on how to open the conversation with family and friends this Christmas.

Ah, Christmas. The season of long train journeys, lots of food and squabbles over board games is upon us, and we’re officially feeling festive.

But as we head home for Christmas – loaded with all the gifts, booze and snacks we can carry – there’s also a feeling of anticipation to deal with. Because for some people, going home to visit family can only mean one thing: a lot of questions.

Whether it’s your auntie questioning your (non-existent) relationship status, or your distant cousin probing your career choices, the Christmas period quickly has the potential to become less of a celebration and more of an on-the-spot interview.

Out of all the subjects, however, questions about your mental health – or, more likely, the visible symptoms of it – are probably the least welcome. Mental health conditions don’t just disappear because it’s Christmas – in fact, some people actually experience worsened symptoms because of the pressure to be happy at this time of year – but it can be hard to communicate this to friends and family who can’t empathise with the situation.

People talking about mental health at Christmas
Mental health at Christmas: the festive season can be a difficult time for many of us, so it's important to start the conversation.

“Talking about your mental health is hard,” explains Jo Love, a mental health advocate and director of the Speakers Collective. “Sometimes it’s more difficult to open up to your friends and family than it is to a stranger. Starting the conversation does, however, have huge potential benefits, such as increased family support and reassurance.

“It’s worth remembering that you don’t necessarily need your parents or friends to understand exactly what you’re going through,” she continues. “You just need them to know you’re struggling so you can get the help and support you need. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues aren’t always easily described, especially to people who don’t have personal experience with it.”

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Whether you want to open up about your mental health with your family and friends for the first time, just want them to understand a bit more about where you’re coming from, or simply want to explain why you’re seeing a therapist or professional, here are some tips to make the conversation easier.

1. Prepare, prepare, prepare

Speaking about such an important subject to the people you’re closest to can be an extremely nerve-wracking experience, so take the time to prepare yourself and think about what you’re going to say.

What do you want out of the conversation? Do you just want to let them know what’s going on, or do you need their support in seeking help? Make sure you’ve got an aim in mind before you dive into it.

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“The temptation is often to blurt these things out but you can help reduce the stress of the conversation by taking your time and planning out in advance what you’re going to say,” explains Love. “Having a few bullet points can often be more helpful than memorising a long speech. It’s normal for everyone to feel sad or anxious from time to time, so you want to make sure it’s very clear to your parents or friends what you’re going through.

“Being specific, clear and direct will help get your point across. For example, it will help to talk to them as much as you can about exactly how your symptoms have been impacting your life.”

How to talk about mental health
Mental health at Christmas: “Being specific, clear and direct will help get your point across.”

It’s also important to consider when and where you’re going to start the conversation: “Once you’re feeling ready to have a conversation, choose a time and place that’s comfortable and private,” adds Love.

“Try and pick a time when you have their full attention, you’re not time pressured or likely to be interrupted – that way they’re more likely to be able to focus on you and take what you have to say seriously.”

2. Be ready for an unexpected reaction

In a dream world, everyone would understand exactly where you’re coming from when it comes to mental health – but that’s not always the case. Some people may, for example, take it quite personally if you say you’re feeling anxious or depressed, because they may believe it is something they’ve done or been unable to provide that has caused the issue.

In these cases, it’s important to stay calm and explain exactly where you’re coming from. Spell out the fact that mental health is often undetermined by situational issues, and it’s a health issue instead. Using comparisons can also be helpful: remind them that, if they were suffering from a persistent back pain, they would seek help – and that it’s the same with mental health conditions.

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“Some people just don’t understand, especially older generations typically,” points out life coach Rebecca Lockwood. “Don’t worry about the response you may get if you do open up and have a conversation… just remember it isn’t personal.”

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that no matter what response you receive, your feelings and experiences are completely valid – and if people can’t understand that, that doesn’t make them any less so.

3. Write it out

If the idea of talking about your mental health currently fills you with dread, writing a letter or journal entry can be a great way to start. Writing your thoughts and feelings down – whether or not you’re going to show them to anyone – can help you to understand a bit more about how you’re feeling and articulate your situation more accurately.

Mental health at Christmas
Mental health at Christmas: get everything down on paper.

“If you don’t want to speak to someone, try journaling,” suggests Lockwood. “Just grab a pen and a piece of paper and write everything you are thinking about. Don’t try to analyse it – just it all out. You can even throw it away afterwards – it’s more about getting the chatter in your mind out onto the paper.”

Love agrees: “If you’re really nervous to the point that you’re putting off this conversation, writing it out is a great way to start a dialogue. A letter, email or even a text can sometimes be the only way to ensure you’re not interrupted, undermined or derailed.”

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Main image: Erin Aniker

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