Helping a Loved One with Mental Illness Through the Holidays

by Natasha Tracy - January 15, 2018

Helping a Loved One with Mental Illness

Anyone can have a hard time getting through the holidays. It might be for emotional or situational reasons, but regardless, the holidays can be hard. If someone has a chronic illness such as a mental illness, though, things can be even tougher. While others may experience normal, although heightened, feelings of stress and unhappiness, someone with a mental illness may experience severe anxiety, depression or a worsening of other symptoms of mental illness. Holidays, unfortunately, can make mental illnesses worse.

Why Might a Holiday Worsen Mental Illness?

Holidays have the capability of distressing anyone. This might be because a person can’t afford the “perfect” gift, doesn’t have the family environment he or she wants or a myriad of other reasons. While holidays can bring out the cheer in us, they also can bring out the sadness.

And for people with mental illness, it is the same, only more so. While an average person may feel down over the holidays, a person with a mental illness may have a full-blown major depressive episode leading to insomnia, an inability to feel pleasure (anhedonia) or even suicidal thoughts and feelings. Similarly, those with a severe anxiety disorder are subject to panic attacks and those who hear voices are more likely to do so under the stresses of the holiday season. Simply, the holidays can breed stress and stress can breed a worsening of chronic illness symptoms.

What If Your Loved One Has a Mental Illness?

If your loved one has a mental illness, you might see the signs or he or she is experiencing these symptoms or you might not. The person with the mental illness may slink away from people so as to hide the symptoms or deny outright that symptoms are happening. Either way, though, your loved one with a mental illness would undoubtedly like your help in getting through the holidays.

Helping Your Mentally Ill Loved One During the Holidays

While it’s normal to feel helpless and like there’s nothing that can be done to help your loved one, luckily, this isn’t true. Try these strategies to help those with a mental illness who are having a hard time during the holidays:

1. Open a line of communication.

Many people with mental illness are scared to show their symptoms to others. It can be scary to admit you’re depressed or severely anxious during a time when everyone is supposed to be happy. What you can do is open a line of communication with your loved one and let him or her know that it’s okay to talk about his or her feelings and experiences in an open and honest way.

2. Practice listening and acceptance.

When you open up that line of communication, be prepared to really listen to your loved one and accept his or her experience. Remember, experiences with mental illness may be very different from your own but they are real.

3. Offer to take care of the little things.

Anyone can get bogged down with the little things that need doing over the holidays. If you have time, why not take care of a few of them for your loved one? Maybe you can help decorate the tree, help with holiday baking or pick up the groceries your loved one needs. Offering to do things like picking up medications at the pharmacy, vacuuming, laundry and other chores can also be very helpful to a person who is experiencing worsening mental illness symptoms.

4. Offer them the gift of time.

While everyone loves to tear open wrapping paper on Christmas morning, just as important, if not more so, is time. Offer to visit with your loved one if he or she is low. Offer to take care of your loved one’s kids so he or she can have some personal time. Gift of a massage or facial so your loved one can do something pleasant just for him or herself.

5. Share a meal.

Eating healthy meals can be one of the things that falls by the wayside when a person is severely mentally ill. Help your loved one by helping to prepare the meal or even making meals you can leave with your loved one for him or her to reheat and eat later.

6. Offer words of support.

Supporting a loved one with a mental illness is so important and can be simple. Saying, “I know things are hard right now, but I love you and support you and will help you through this,” is a gift with which a something wrapped in paper can never compare.

7. Know when to get help.

While you may try your best to help your loved one with a mental illness during the holidays, your help may not be enough. If symptoms are getting out of control or, certainly, if your loved one is suicidal reach out to a helpline or a healthcare professional as soon as possible. If your loved one’s life is at risk, dial 9-1-1 immediately.

The Biggest Way to Help a Loved One with a Mental Illness Through the Holidays

And remember to ask what your loved one wants. While there may be many strategies to help your loved one with a mental illness, the best person to identify ways you can help is your loved one his or herself.

And when your loved one does identify needs, listen. If your loved one with a mental illness needs to leave a party early, refrain from drinking or decline an invitation for his or her own mental health, be supportive of these healthy choices. Even if you don’t understand the reasoning behind some of these choices, simply recognizing their importance and positive nature can mean so much.

In short, remember to treat a mental illness like any other illness. Do the things you would do for a person with another illness. People with illnesses – mental or otherwise – may need extra help during the holidays; and if you can lend a hand, your loved one will not forget it.


Natasha Tracy is a professional writer and author for and Bipolar Burble. She currently worked as a freelancer for

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