Helping Someone with a Mental Illness Navigate the Holidays

November 23, 2016

The holidays are here! What if you have a family member that struggles with mental illness? You may be entering this holiday season with caution.

The holidays are here! For some, this brings feelings of excitement and anticipation of wonderful gatherings full of joy, family, friendship, and love. I say if that is you – embrace it and enjoy every second of it!

What if you have a family member that struggles with mental illness?

You may be entering this holiday season with caution. The question burning in your head may be, “Will we find any joy this season?” Then again just maybe you are optimistic that this year will be different? Or, perhaps you have even started the countdown to when the holidays will be over.

This season may be taxing for everyone to some degree. However, when you add mental illness into the holiday mix, things can become exhausting, discouraging, and sad for all. It is not uncommon during the holidays to see our loved ones become incredibly symptomatic, in the hospital, overwhelmed, isolating, or just barely getting by.

BUT, what if each of us could be a catalyst for making the holidays a little less stressful for someone with a mental illness? Would you be willing to try? I know we all hate seeing our loved ones with extra struggles of any kind. Sooo – Are you in it to give your best effort?

Start Here

The first place to start would be gaining a little insight into what the holidays may be like for a person that struggles with mental illness. Granted, I am not an expert on what someone with a mental illness might be feeling, but over the years I have learned a few things from my experiences and from those willing to share with me. Of course, each person is different, but this may help.

Why don’t we begin with some of the familiar phrases that might come up when the pressure of the holidays starts to mount on our loved ones.

“I hate the holidays, everything about them.” “I have to look right, talk right, be right, and it is just impossible.” ‘Nobody likes me.” ‘Everybody judges me.” “Doesn’t anybody realize how hard this is for me?” “Doesn’t anybody care about me?” “The people I depend on to take care of me become so consumed, stressed and busy; they do not even notice I am struggling.” “I just don’t belong.” ” All I want is “my normal” back.”

What if this time we do not have answers or solutions to everything said? Instead what if we attempted to climb into their shoes and see what it is like to live with mental health challenges during the holidays.

What Might Someone with a Mental Illness Want You to Understand?

  • Holidays Feel Like Milepost Markers: As we gather with cousins, friends, and family it a reminder of the milepost markers not yet hit.
  • Social Interactions Are Draining: Now we are out and about with people we do not interact with on a regular basis. All these extra socializing leaves me spent.
  • Change in Routine: Change is difficult at any time. During the holiday’s schedules are fuller, food is different, and life is not quite the same.
  • Increased Stress is in the Air: Stress is like a magnet. Not only does a person have to manage their additional stress but now they feel your stress and added obligations you have made.
  • Holidays Are Noisy: Extra noise is everywhere they go including inside their head.
  • Emotions Might Be Amplified: When emotions are amplified mental processing becomes more difficult
  • Judgments: Not only do they feel the piercing eyes of others hurling judgments they too are judging themselves harsher than anyone else could ever do.

Helping Someone with a Mental Illness Navigate the Holidays

  • Predictability: Let them know the plans ahead of time.
  • Helping: Ask your loved one what you can do to help to make it less stressful. It might be as simple as dressing down or wearing slippers. I served one year with slippers on, and it was fantastic.
  • Be Consistent:
  • Be in the Moment: Live in the present moment. Turn your chair, make eye contact, listen.
  • Be Effective, Not Right: Think about what you want, to be right, or to have a peaceful home.
  • Safety: Create a safe place in your home. Provide a way out at events
  • Let It Be Their Choice: Be willing to negotiate on plans and expectations. Do they even want to attend or participate? Ask. Communicate your understanding if they choose not to participate. Let them know you don’t want them to feel left out, and you will miss them. Say it is your choice over and over again. It makes it easier for a person to take control of their behavior if it is their choosing.
  • Preparations: Don’t force others to be active, Ask if they want to help or be included. Let them step away if they are getting too stressed.
  • Validate, Validate, Validate: We all like to be heard and acknowledged.
  • Practice Conversations: Practice the anticipated conversations that will come up at the gatherings.
  • Lower Your Expectations: Let landing the plane be enough. Showing up for 5 minutes is better than none.
  • Alcohol: Rethink what you are serving. Alcohol can have a significant impact on mood.
Helping Someone with a Mental Illness Navigate the Holidays
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I believe we can make the holidays just a tad bit better for those we love with a little bit of understanding and a few skills. After all, if our loved ones are a bit better, we will be too. Granted we most likely won’t be able to pull off a “Norman Rockwell Christmas” however a bit better goes a long way.

Please share with us what tips have worked for helping your family navigate the holidays.

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  1. Reply

    Gretchen Fleming

    I so appreciate this Maree. I readily admit I don’t understand mental illness enough and I thank you for sharing this valuable information. It helps those of us who just don’t know how best to respond. I want to be helpful and supportive but unless you know the inside story going on with someone, it is hard to judge how they would like you to respond to them. Your hindsight/insight is appreciated. Hope you and yours have a happy thanksgiving Maree🦃🥧

    1. Reply

      Maree Dee

      Thank you for your willingness to want to do something. By sharing this post, you are doing something. Most people don’t understand until they have to walk in it. I was one of them. I think the most important thing is just to do something, so families do feel all alone.
      Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving!


  2. Reply

    Michele Morin

    We have a number of people in our lives who suffer from bi-polar disorder which is exacerbated in this season of early darkness. Inviting them in for holidays — or just for fun evenings together — is so helpful in providing support.
    Thanks for this great post, full of compassion.

    1. Reply

      Maree Dee

      Michele, Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. Thank you for pointing out the early darkness has a significant impact. How wonderful to invite people in for fun evenings. I like that, and it doesn’t have to be centered around a celebration which adds stress. Maree

  3. Reply

    Sarah Geringer

    Hi Maree. This is such a practical, helpful post. I really like your advice on preparing conversations, lowering expectations, and rethinking alcohol. You’ve given me a lot to think about, as I go into the season with a few mentally ill relatives. Thank you so much!

    1. Reply

      Maree Dee

      I am so glad you found the post helpful. If we all just make a few changes it helps. Maree

  4. Reply


    Recognize that mentally ill friends may not be able or enen invited to participate in their own family event. It has meant so much to me over the years to have friends allow me to come to their family event and treat me like family-not a guest and not an illness. They always have shown me where I can go to rest and recoup if needed and no one comments or questions when I return to the group. I figure my friends tell their family a bit about me beforehand, but it is so much better than spending the day alone year after year and telling co-workers I don’t mind, that I’m used to it.

    1. Reply

      Maree Dee

      Thank you for stopping and leaving a comment. It sounds like you have some pretty nice friends. In turn, I bet you are a good friend to them, and they are blessed to have you in their home. I love that your friends show you where you can rest and recoup. You have given me a good idea. I am so glad you are not spending the day alone. Maree

  5. Reply

    Kathleen Garber

    This is awesome. I’m the person with the mental illness AND the person who loves people with mental illness. Only 1 out of 6 adults in our family does not struggle with mental illness. These are great tips.

    1. Reply

      Maree Dee

      Kathleen, Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. You made my day! Please do add anything else you can think of. I am always in search of new ways to make the holidays better for those I love. Maree

  6. Reply


    Important thoughts and tips. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Reply

      Maree Dee

      I am so glad you stopped by my page and read about “Navigating the Holidays”. Thank you for your comments.

  7. Reply


    Excellent thoughts, Maree!! Thank you so much for sharing.

    In our home we have found simplicity to be the key to a peaceful holiday. A calm home and time spent together are what we reach for. 🙂

    1. Reply

      Maree Dee

      I would love any tips you have on making the holidays simple. It is something I strive for, but I do have to admit I find it difficult. I thought I had decided to skip the Christmas cards this year, but then I find myself going back to thinking I should add them back to the list.

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