As we enter the holiday season we expect to see a rise in symptoms in the people we serve. While “holiday-related suicide” is generally regarded as a myth, studies here have focused on self-harm during the actual holidays. Although suicide rates are at their lowest in December, a Danish study reported a rebound effect in the period immediately after the holidays, with a 40% increase in suicides. There is an increase in anxiety, stress, depression, and substance disorder symptoms.
This is the time of year when menorahs are lit and strings of colored lights are put up on trees and the fronts of houses. Stories are taken out and told again, about the star followed by kings across the desert or lamps miraculously burning in a cleansed temple. Our culture especially seems to celebrate the light to the exclusion of other considerations.
But the reason we’re lighting candles is because this is literally the darkest time of the year. Even those of us who don’t meet criteria for SAD or who live in temperate latitudes respond to the angle of the sunlight and the early dusk. For many years I directed a cluster of community mental health programs. At our annual holiday dinner for clients I addressed the holiday traditions, and laid a gentle but firm stress on the dark, ending with a holiday wish that everyone would be gentle with themselves in this time.
In community mental health, most of the folks we served lived on SSI. At a time of year when the culture is flooded with messages that holidays are about spending, and that spending is the way to attach to joy, those without a lot of purchasing power can feel excluded from that source of joy. The same is true for those who are cut off from their families. Images of families coming together in love and celebration enhance awareness of isolation and stigma.
If you do most of your work in an agency, the physical environment and scheduled activities can address these feelings of exclusion and isolation in a very direct manner. Singing carols or a ritual lighting of the kinara on a Kwanza table are effective interventions on a group level. Your agency may not be in a position to offer a holiday dinner, but a low-cost alternative such as a holiday card-making activity will make a place of inclusion available to your clients–a lit place to which they can come and find welcome.
In one-on-one work, help your clients identify meanings for the holidays that predate or preempt consumer roles. I’m not suggesting that any of us take on the role of religious preceptor. But mindful, nonjudgmental and compassionate dialogue helps people locate what emotional qualities or spiritual values inform the holidays for them. Time spent making those associations more conscious in this season can ground people against waves of alienation and advertising.
Some of our clients have sustained wounds in their meetings with organized religion. Bob, a self-described pagan with a love of death metal and skull-themed jewelry, expressed deeply bitter feelings for the cultural paraphernalia of Christmas and the prevalence of Christian symbols and values. As we moved into December he began to report angry encounters with others in the environment, which expressed his feelings of opposition but put him in line for all kinds of problems.
I described some of the ways observation of the solstice has been incorporated into different traditions, hoping to deconstruct the predominance of Christian tradition that was such a trigger for him. But it wasn’t until I mentioned Mithras and the birthday of Sol Invictus, the unvanquished sun, that Bob responded positively. The whole idea of “unvanquished” spoke to him.
Adding to his historical clash with Christianity, which began with his minister father and continued through a stay in one of the downtown homeless missions, was a lack of funds. He felt frustrated, powerless and worthless in response. And a religion that was once the provenance of soldiers appealed to his sense of masculine identity. We spent part of that session researching Mithras online and downloading an image of Mithras and the bull (“Hey, that’s cool!”) that he could take with him. Finally there was something in this season for Bob.
The ancients knew that the winter solstice was a tough passage, full of darkness, a place of vulnerability. It’s in the darkest night that the new light is born. We can assist in the birth of hope among the folks with whom we work. That’s why we do this, isn’t it?