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Expert tips for fighting the 'holiday blues' during COVID-19

The YES Community Counseling Center in Massapequa is

The YES Community Counseling Center in Massapequa is offering extra support during the holidays.   Credit: Barry Sloan

Even in ordinary times, "the most wonderful time of the year" isn’t so wonderful for everyone.

"The holiday blues," long considered an exacerbator of anxiety, depression and other mental illness, are coinciding with the coronavirus, worrying mental health practitioners.

The factors this year: fear of the virus itself, as well as its potential consequences — financial problems, hunger, losing loved ones, "even the idea that you may not be able to see your loved ones in their final days is so distressing that people are really struggling," said Dr. Victor Fornari, vice chairman of child and adolescent psychiatry at Northwell’s psychiatric hospital Zucker Hillside in Glen Oaks, Queens.

A 2014 survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 64% of people with mental illness reported that the holidays worsen their conditions.

The survey concluded, among other findings, that in ordinary holiday seasons there is "too much pressure," as one respondent said, "to be joyful and social." It's unclear how much the absence of such pressures during the pandemic might actually provide a counterbalance.

To cope during the holidays — especially holidays in 2020 — Fornari suggests doing one’s best to stay calm. Use whatever tactics are best for you, Fornari says, such as prayer, yoga, mindfulness techniques or listening to music. Remember, he adds, that the pandemic won’t last forever and the vaccine has begun to be administered.

"What I like to say is, 'may the Christmas spirit be fulfilled and we look forward to Christmas after the pandemic,'" Fornari said.

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Dr. Arwa Nasir, division chief of academic general pediatrics and associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, suggests that families take time to sit with children to discuss what’s happening, in age-appropriate ways, and encourage any questions that might arise.

She says families should also maintain normal routines and activities that accompany the holidays as best they can while remaining safe: wake up on a schedule; have regular meals; put a package together for a grandparent who can’t join the festivities. Perhaps a tech-savvy teenager might help set up a video call for the family.

"This connection, this relationship, this warmth," she said, "can be the most important buffer … and can allow the child to actually to tap into their resilience to weather these situations."

Nasir said families should watch for warning signs — sleeplessness, changes in appetite, or unusual trouble at school — and reach out to a pediatrician for advice as needed.

Dr. David H. Rosmarin, director of the Center for Anxiety — which has offices in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Rockland County — and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said it’s hard to pinpoint what’s driving increased mental health problems.

He cited a report published in August from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding that "U.S. adults reported considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19. Younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation."

"Our society is struggling with coping with uncertainty and the fact that we can’t predict what will happen next," Rosmarin said.

He recommends convening during the holidays over a video chat app — "Zoom get-together" in which "you order in, you make something nice;" it’s one way to avoid being completely alone, which can worsen illnesses like depression.

Particularly worrisome for mental-health practitioners are older people who are alone and lack access to, or the ability to use, technology that could provide some degree of human connection during a pandemic.

"It’s a societal issue, which is really coming to a head. We don’t integrate older adults into our communities," he said. "There’s an issue of segregation to begin with, and now with COVID, we’re just seeing an exacerbation of it."

Where to get help

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

800-273-8255

Substance Abuse and Mental Illness Services Administration

800-662-HELP

Nassau County's behavioral health line

516-227-TALK (8255)

New York City’s mental health line

866-NYC-WELL

New York Project Hope emotional support help line

844-863-9314

Community counseling centers

The YES Community Counseling Center in Massapequa (516-799-3203) and others throughout the Island are offering services throughout the season.

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