Surveys show that a majority of us find the holidays stressful, but for a minority of people the problem goes deeper than the usual festive franticness. For those already dealing with depression, anxiety, or loneliness, the holiday season can be an additional strain, while those working through a loss can also find the period exceptionally painful.
And, as comedian and marketer Bill Bernat, who has suffered from severe depression, explained on the TED Ideas blog, the fact that everyone else tries to cheer you up (or avoid the dark shadow you cast) adds to the suffering of those with mental health worries.
So if your seasonal cheer won't help your depressed friend deal with his or her least favorite time of year, what will? Bernat offers several practical suggestions, including these.
1. Don't think that being sad and being OK are incompatible.
"Please don't let our lack of bubbly happiness freak you out. Sadness does not need to be treated with the urgency of a shark attack. Yes, we can be sad and OK at the exact same time. TV, movies, popular songs and even people tell us if we're not happy, there's something wrong. We're taught that sadness is unnatural, and we must resist it. In truth, it's natural and it's healthy to accept sadness and know it won't last forever," Bernat points out. Science backs him up.
2. Do use your natural voice.
Is there ever really an acceptable occasion to talk to someone older than three in a put-on soothing voice? Probably not many, but Bernat insists chatting with your friend who is bummed about Christmas is definitely not one of them. "It's not rude for you to be upbeat around us," he advises.
3. Do absolve yourself of responsibility for the depressed person.
"You might be afraid that if you talk to them, you're responsible for their well-being, that you need to 'fix' them and solve their problems. You're not expected to be Dr. Phil -- just be friendly," suggests Bernat to those worried they should be doing more to help their unhappy loved ones. "You may worry that you won't know what to say, but words are not the most important thing -- your presence is."
4. Do ask them for help.
Just because someone is struggling with mental health issues, doesn't mean they are - or want to feel - useless. "When people were worried about a friend of mine, they'd call him and ask if he wanted to go shopping or help them clean out their garage. This was a great way to reach out," Bernat relates. "They were engaging with him without calling attention to his depression. He knew they cared, but he didn't feel embarrassed or like a burden. (Yes, your depressed friends could be a good source of free labor!)"
5. Don't insist on ice cream.
Bundling yourself on the couch to binge watch TV and eat unhealthy food might be many people's preferred prescription for garden-variety grumpiness, but don't expect your go-to pick-me-up to work for your friend's more serious mental health concerns. Bernat brings this point home with a pointed joke: "You cannot cure clinical depression by eating ice cream, which is unfortunate because that would be living the dream."
Want to learn more about Bernat's personal story or his advice for friends and loved ones of those suffering from depression? Then check out his complete post.