We’ve officially turned the corner on the holiday season. Thanksgiving and Black Friday are squarely in the rearview mirror. Cyber Monday is tomorrow.

And then it’s off to the races.

Because of Thanksgiving’s late arrival this year, the December weekend calendar has been made a bit tighter. With all the parties to attend, holiday musicals to perform and the dozens of places our kids need to be shuttled to in the next three weeks, it’s likely that the month will pass us by and we won’t even remember that it happened.

Somewhere in there, by the way, we still have to live real life. December is not a very practical month.

And yet it is, as the old song says, the most wonderful time of the year.

That rings true for many of us. We anticipate even the anticipation of Christmas. There is something magically fun about the building up of the holiday season.

Yet for some people, the month of December is less about the race of getting to all the places and participating in all the fun and buying all the gifts. December becomes more about just making it through; surviving until the calendar rolls over and we can all just get back to normal.

There’s been a long-standing myth that suicide rates increase during the holidays. Despite efforts from mental health organizations and even the Center for Disease Control, this idea still floats around every December. In reality, suicide rates tend to spike in the spring and fall but that doesn’t mean that the holidays aren’t difficult for a lot of people.

In fact, suicide rates may drop during the holidays but depression seems to take an upward swing. The stress and anxiety of the holidays can sometimes even cause people who generally don’t deal with depression to face those struggles during this season.

I’m not a mental health expert by a long shot. I’m not a doctor, a counselor or a psychiatrist. But I am a mental health advocate. It’s the most underdeveloped and misunderstood field in our medical system. Couple that with the stigmatization that accompanies mental health problems and it is a recipe for disaster.

For people who deal with these issues on a regular basis and for people who seem to stumble into them in December, being understood and having access to help and care is essential.

On a treatment level, there’s obviously not much the average individual can do outside of lobbying and advocating for better mental health processes, procedures, research and funding. And truth be told, the holidays aren’t really a great time to begin doing that (although it may make for a great New Years’ Resolution).

So what can we do as a community to help those who have mental health struggles particularly during the holiday season?

Isolation is a big problem for a lot of people during this time of year. Look around you and think proactively. Who do you know that will likely spend the holidays alone? Who in your neighborhood just recently suffered a loss and will likely be grieving that anew as they experience the first holiday season without a loved one?

They may not want to come join your holiday traditions, but take them a plate of food, drop off a Christmas card, sing some carols at their door. Invite them over for cookies and coffee. Even if they decline the invitation, knowing that someone cares enough to check in may do a world of good.

Another way to be aware of those who may need a little pick-me-up this season is to serve. Make time in the busy holiday schedule to participate in a gift drive, work with an organization that is providing food to families who don’t quite have as much, or simply walk your street and see who needs help with their Christmas lights.

Service helps us not to give into the holiday pressure of being so inwardly focused and reminds us to bring comfort and joy to all the spaces we walk into.

You just never know what one small act might do in the life of another.

Cortney Stewart is a 2003 graduate of Lecanto High School. She has bachelor’s degrees in political science and international affairs, a master’s degree in intercultural studies and is currently working on her Ph.D. in international conflict management. She most recently spent two years teaching and training students, teachers and government officials in Baghdad, Iraq. Email her at seeingbeyondccc@gmail.com.

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