The Avalanche

For some students, it all comes crashing down in the winter

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The Avalanche

An illustration displays an avalanche with miscellaneous holiday items.

An illustration displays an avalanche with miscellaneous holiday items.

Photo: Sierra Sellers

An illustration displays an avalanche with miscellaneous holiday items.

Photo: Sierra Sellers

Photo: Sierra Sellers

An illustration displays an avalanche with miscellaneous holiday items.

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Or is it?

What if the holiday season, generally perceived as being an epicenter of happiness, a hub for celebration and time with family, is actually what brings some people down this time of year?

In a survey conducted by the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), 24 percent of respondents who have a diagnosed mental health issue believe their condition gets “a lot” worse, and another 40 percent believe their condition is “somewhat” worse during the holidays.

“The holiday season beams a spotlight on everything that is difficult about living with depression,” one respondent to the survey said. “The pressure to be joyful and social is tenfold.”

For survey respondents, financial issues were apparently the greatest stressor, with 68 percent reporting feeling stressed about financial strains. However, financial issues do not always manifest in the same ways to young people that they do in adults.

For adolescents, loneliness, feeling too much pressure or facing unrealistic expectations from friends and family may be the reasons for a stressful season. Adolescents in particular are also susceptible to stress – a study by the New York University Child Study Center found that 54 percent of girls who suffer from depression feel more depressed during the holidays, and the same is true of 19 percent of boys who suffer from depression. While some stressors, like exams, affect almost all students, others, like the loss of a family member, the challenges of complicated family dynamics or an ongoing struggle with depression can feel particularly isolating around the holidays. Ultimately, these factors can make the season feel more like an avalanche than a rush of holiday cheer.

Loss

When current senior Austin Wall lost his father to cancer complicated by pneumonia in 2015, his life changed forever. And for him and his family, the winter holidays have lost some of the joy generally associated with the season. Losing a family member is never easy, but adapting to the reality of missing that person during times that others use to celebrate family is especially difficult.

“The best way I can describe it around the holidays for a little while or life in general was just gray,” Wall said. “It didn’t seem very vivid. It wasn’t like I was super depressed or anything but stuff didn’t affect me the same way it used to.”

According to NAMI’s survey, 55 percent of respondents said they tended to reminisce about “happier times in the past contrasting with the present.”

“Have your people. Whether it’s your parents, or your siblings, or your friends, your teachers, your counselor, have the people that you can go talk to.””

— Senior William Brown

Missing family members during the holiday season can be a particularly grief-filled struggle. As people see others celebrating all winter long and enjoying the company of their families, the sense of loss can introduce stress, especially if people feel pressure to appear happier than they are.

Wall does not feel pressure to feel happy or positive – he prefers to live as normally as he can and address his emotions as they arise. The winter season, as well as other times often marked by cheer, sometimes induces sadness.

“[Sometimes] I’m really sad, and I get back to my feelings, but actively, to be honest, I really don’t think of my dad a whole lot,” Wall said. “And that’s a good thing and a bad thing. I think of him all the time when I’m home, but it’s not lasting and it’s not sad, it’s just a quick little flash of memory and then I’m happy about it, or I’ve got feelings about it and then I just keep going.”

Wall is not able to ignore the grief of losing his father, but he finds solace in reflecting on the time he had with him.

“I’m not jealous of other people that they have their dads, but I am sad that I don’t have the same experiences that they do now, but I’m not jealous of it because the stuff that I did have with my dad was super awesome,” Wall said. “Now that I’m getting more open with other people’s lives and other people’s experiences, I realize that I’m really blessed to have had him as long as I did and that he was a great dad and he was a great guy.”

Coping mechanisms for those who lose a loved one or experience other forms of grief may take the form of structured counseling or may be as simple as taking time to enjoy simple things.

“Music is a really good [coping mechanism],” Wall said. “My dad was the one who got me into music. I learned to sing before I could talk, and he used to tell me a story that when his band was creating a CD, he would be listening to the songs in his van on his way picking us up from school and dropping us off from home, and he would tell us that me and my sister learned the songs before he even did. Music has always been a part of my life, and it’s always going to be a part of my life.”

Whether it is music or interactions with close friends and loved ones, Wall knows there are always ways to cope with loss.

“Friends, church, people I can relate with,” Wall listed as outlets he has used to help him cope. “A few people actually came out after my dad passed away and said ‘I went through the same thing you did, if you ever need someone to talk to,’ and that was always really encouraging.”

Coping mechanisms and practices to follow in order to living a mentally healthy life are readily available to anyone who experiences loss, but there are some aspects of grief that never go away and can even be highlighted by the holiday season.

“Christmas is always kind of just, you know, it’s Christmas, I mean, we’re not sad about it,” Wall said. “We find ways to have fun, but it’s not the same.”

Separation

Family matters often induce stress, and when a family situation includes divorce, the holidays can prove especially challenging. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), between 40 and 50 percent of married American couples divorce, so plenty of American children, including many at St. George’s, can relate to the issues that face children of divorced homes.

Junior Mary Virginia McWaters, who goes by Boo, is a child of divorced parents.

“It’s hard,” McWaters said.

“The whole break is difficult. Basically all holidays are because I have to split them back and forth.”

While McWaters is quick to say that she loves spending the holidays with her family, she said she doesn’t like missing out on some of the special traditions in each household.

“On Christmas Eve, my mom’s side of the family has a big Christmas dinner, and on Christmas night, my dad’s side of the family has a really big Christmas dinner, and you might think that that’s a perfect deal because it’s not on the same night,” McWaters explained. “But on Christmas night, my aunt has this thing with just my aunt and my mom since they’re the two sisters, and my grandparents come, and we just eat food and hang out, and it’s chill. And my dad’s side of the family has something like that with my uncle and aunt, and they do that on Christmas Eve, so I don’t like missing out on that stuff too. Like if my parents weren’t divorced and they were still together, I would get to experience all of it.”

McWaters said that maintaining a good attitude is key to enjoying the holidays, no matter what the situation.

“It makes holiday stress easier by having positivity,” McWaters said.

“The whole break kind of is difficult. Basically, all holidays are because I have to split them back and forth.””

— Mary Virginia McWaters

No two families are exactly the same, however, and sometimes conflict between family members can make the holidays uncomfortable as well as inconvenient. One student, who chose to remain anonymous, explained how a difficult conflict within a family complicated the family dynamic.

“Basically my mom and my dad don’t really get along, and me and my sister are more comfortable at my mom’s house rather than my dad’s,” the student said. “I wish I could enjoy over there. It’s this big complicated deal, and we’ve tried to make things better over there and they just haven’t worked out. It’s a really long story but basically I just get stressed out and get anxiety about going over to his house.”

The student would prefer to have a more flexible and easy-going holiday schedule that ensures comfort during the winter season.

“It’s kind of frustrating because in the holidays you want to be with people you’re comfortable around because that’s what the holidays are about,” the student said.

As this story suggests, stress often stems from difficult family situations, especially in the winter season when travel, shorter days, and time spent with less appealing family members clouds the generally positive mood of the holiday season.

Upper school counselor Mrs. Elizabeth Bran understands that some students feel that their family dynamic can make their enjoyment of the season a challenge.

“If they’re children of divorced homes, navigating time between parents can be stressful, and even if their parents are together, a lot of times you have family that comes in town and that can be stressful and students get displaced out of their bedrooms so that grandma can stay there,” Mrs. Bran said, “and then with family in town, their parents are stressed and it can go in a direction of everyone worried about taking care of everyone else and miss the point of all being together.”

Mrs. Bran emphasized the importance of self-care for students who feel stressed out by the holidays.

“There are a lot of different strategies depending on the situation,” Mrs. Bran said. “One universal one is to take time to care for yourself, to make sure you’re eating right and getting rest. But whether you formally practice meditation or mindfulness or not, to take moments to calm your spirit, to think about the things that are important to you and the ways that we’re blessed.”

Depression

“The holidays aren’t exactly the most wonderful time of the year,” said senior Will Brown.

Brown, who suffers from depression, recognizes that others who suffer from similar symptoms and face similar circumstances may not see the holidays as a time free of sadness, and he wishes people would be more understanding and compassionate for those who suffer from depression.

“People need to understand that sometimes people just ‘can’t’ in moments,” he said. “They can in the long run, but sometimes we falter, we fail, and we can’t help it. We try hard, we do. We try hard making it through the day. We try hard making it through the week. We try hard making it through a month, and it’s hard. But we make it through. We make it through another month and eventually another year and eventually another decade and eventually we live our lives and it’s good…but sometimes I still falter and it’s okay.”

Brown sees that not everyone understands his situation.

“I think I do a pretty bang up job of explaining myself,” he said. “Of course, there’s still people who won’t believe or won’t buy it. But it’s something you’ve got to experience sometimes. I feel most pressured by the people who don’t understand or don’t know, and people who say, ‘why aren’t you happy?’ I figure if they did have family with mental illness, they’d be a little bit more caring and a little bit a little less crass about the situation.”

“There’s always someone who cares for you.””

— Will Brown

Brown recognizes the stigma around mental illness, and whether it is society as a whole or a person’s immediate surroundings who impose it, he understands how suffering people feel obligated to act a certain way at times.

“Last year, I was tired of being asked ‘what’s wrong?’ and all that, so I’d say I’m fine, and I’d put on a smile, and I’d pretend to be happy,” he said. “It was just a facade the whole time. I think there are a lot of people who do that to deal with the pressure of depression, you smile and you pretend and you fake it because sometimes it’s easier to fake emotion than to have to deal with people asking you all the time.”

Like many people who suffer from depression, Brown struggles with physical symptoms.

“I don’t wallow in my bed because I’m so sorry for myself,” Brown said. “I wallow in my bed because I just can’t get up. My brain won’t let me. Sometimes I feel trapped, and it sucks so bad. My emotions sometimes take control of me, and I say and do things I don’t want to say or do.”

There are ways people can keep themselves afloat physically and emotionally when difficult times hit. Dr. Stewart Burgess, a child psychologist and psychology teacher, understands that students are often inclined to keep working and putting pressure on themselves to succeed, despite symptoms of depression.

“If you think about when you’re cooped up, just in a building, in a classroom, doing cerebral brainiac work for a long period of time, just walking outside, even if it’s cold, and getting some deep breath of fresh air is a super stress reliever and gives you mental energy and clarity when you come back,” he said.

Dr. Burgess and Mrs. Bran both emphasized the importance of sticking to healthy routines.

“Getting the right amount of sleep and keeping it stable, keeping a schedule that you do not veer too much from as much as possible, has been associated with much lower stress, better physical health and sense of well-being,” Dr. Burgess said.

While Dr. Burgess offered input on the best practices for unconscious rest, Mrs. Bran explained how best to navigate stresses during waking hours.

“Trying to refrain from negative thinking is important,” Mrs. Bran said, “and then sticking with your routines of getting exercise or doing the things you love to do – if you love to read, or if you love to paint, or sing, or whatever, don’t lose sight of the things that make you happy and make sure that you’re building enough of that into your day as well.”

Sleep and any kind of meditative practices are important, but physical and emotional wellness can be particularly difficult to

“Most of us have that experience of gray days, feeling a little more ‘blah,’ and maybe feeling like we have a little less energy,” Dr. Burgess said, “and if that happens in a prolonged period of time, where you’re not getting some nice, bright, normal sunshine and stuff, then that can really affect people. It can bring in more sad feelings and more sense of fatigue.”

Mrs. Bran echoed this sentiment, reminding young people that there is a difference between true depression and moments of temporary sadness.

“I think it’s important, for teenagers especially, to understand that most teenagers go through sort of low spells,” she said. “So, [don’t] panic if you just feel ‘blah’ for a short amount of time. At the same time, pay attention to how long it’s lasting so that if it is something more serious, if it is something that you may need support, to make sure you’re recognizing that as well. Have your people. Whether it’s your parents, or your siblings, or your friends, your teachers, your counselor, have the people that you can go talk to.”

There are scientific, health-focused methods to tackle depression, but there are also intangible aspects of the illness that cannot always be addressed with coping mechanisms or specific practices. When such situations arise, as they often do in winter, Will Brown does his best to look for ways he can feel uplifted and shared his thoughts on how to do so.

“We can do this. The holidays are a good time of the year. Enjoy your family. Enjoy meals and allow yourself to make mistakes. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Your family’s there for you… they love you dearly. And if they don’t someone loves you. There’s always someone who cares for you.”

Brown assures those in doubt that there is a positive end in sight.

“It’s hard but it’s possible to make it through,” he said. “And yeah you have bad days, but there are so many better ones.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with feelings of depression,

seek out help from our school counselors, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/) or reach out to a local behavioral center.

Elizabeth Bran, Upper School Director of Counseling and Guidaance Phone: 901-457-2012
Email: [email protected]

Amy Michalak, Middle School Director of Counseling and Guidance Phone: 901-457-2129
Email: [email protected]

Daybreak Treatment Center Phone: 901-753-4300

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