Christmas: Not So Merry a Time After All

by Jenora Vaswani

Christmas. It is the intensely commercialised holiday that marks the arrival of discounted Santa hats, the annoyingly chirpy voice at the Tesco self-service machines, and the appearance of vibrantly coloured Christmas jumpers everywhere. Yet, there lies a much darker side to this festive season that is not given the ample discussion it deserves, namely mental health.

For students, Christmas involves the expectation of returning home and reuniting with family and friends. It’s not unusual to ask if someone’s going home for the term break. For some, this isn’t an issue. Conversely, these expectations also emphasise the deficiencies of support systems for those who are unwilling or unable to go home for whatever reason. With the mass evacuation that Durham seems to experience at the end of Michaelmas term when students make a beeline for the quickest mode of transport available, those who are staying behind are often left feeling alone and isolated. College welfare teams disperse (although I believe online communication systems continue to operate, dependent on the college), weekly tea and biscuits ground to a halt, Nightline services are put on hold, and friends respond more lethargically, laden with social obligations. It’s therefore unsurprising, albeit sobering, to consider that according to a study the mental health charity, Mind, conducted in 2015,

  • Over a third (36 per cent) of people with mental health problems have self-harmed to cope with the pressure of Christmas
  • Three quarters (76 per cent) of people have had problems sleeping at Christmas
  • Nearly 60 per cent of people have experienced panic attacks over the festive period

Social interactions drop significantly: societies break for the holiday, the obligation to go to lectures and seminars disappears, and the streets of Durham empty. The reassuring familiarity of daily routines grinds to an abrupt halt, and a sense of purposeless and dejection can sink in.

Even for those who do return home, the holidays can still be an incredibly difficult time. Individuals with eating disorders might struggle with the disruption of rituals, insensitive comments (however well-meaning) from relatives and friends, and simply the fact that Christmas is an incredibly social event centred around the consumption of food. Bereavement can make old rituals feel uncomfortably empty, and it can be difficult to open up about feelings if you worry about burdening someone with your troubles. Stress from family from unhealthy relationships with parents, worrying about specific members of your family, financial difficulties, comments about your future employability and the future, or even the feeling of letting your family down in some way can be exhausting. Stress in itself can worsen existing mental health issues, leading into a downward spiral of guilt and self harm.

Instead of allowing the superficial merriness of Christmas to conveniently mask the darker side of reality, perhaps it is time to begin talking about the things we can do to make the holiday a little more bearable. Reaching out to friends beforehand and establishing contingency plans for support, or chatting to them more regularly is a good start. Extended family can sometimes provide an avenue of support. Equally, charities and helplines are an option – being able to talk through your emotions, understand potential sources of illogical lines of thought, and identify activities or steps that might improve your situation can be quite helpful. Self-help information on the Internet is most definitely out there, but it often requires the active searching thereof, and can be buried under the apparent happiness of everyone else on social media. Knowledge and open communication won’t solve everything, but it is a start – a start that we all need, for the sake of our community, our friends, and ourselves.

The Samaritans (116 123) are always there to chat, or just have another person on the other end of the line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Their number is free to call from landlines, mobiles and pay-as-you-go phones, and won’t show up on any phone bills. You can also email them at Certain branches will have drop-in hours as well – if you call, they can provide you with the details.

The NHS can also be contacted at 111 for mental health information.

Rethink also offers advice and information from Monday to Friday, 10am-2pm, not including bank holidays, on 0300 5000 927 (calls are charged at your local rate).

Mind has an info line on 0300 123 3393 (UK landline calls are charged at local rates, and charges from mobile phones will vary considerably). You can also email or text 86463. Their Christmas schedule is as follows.

Sunday 25 December  – closed
Monday 26 December (Boxing Day) – closed
Tuesday 27 December – closed
Wednesday 28 December – 9am to 6pm
Thursday 29 December – 9am to 6pm
Friday 30 December – 9am to 4pm
Saturday 31  December – closed
Sunday 1 January – closed
Monday 2 January – closed
Tuesday 3 January – 9am to 6pm

Talking to your gp is also an option. They can be there to listen, and may refer you to specialist mental health services if they feel like they will help you. You can also ask to see another doctor at the same practice, or at a different practice if you don’t feel comfortable with your current doctor.


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