Millions of families are impacted by mental illness on a daily basis, including on Thanksgiving and other end of year holidays. It can affect you, your aunt, a cousin, grandfather, sibling, best friend, or boyfriend. Truth is, mental illness of all diagnoses – including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or substance use – does not discriminate. As a holiday host, you may or may not be aware of each guest’s particular struggle, nor may they be aware of yours.
What you can be aware of is the fact that the holidays present some specific challenges for someone living with mental illness. For example, sitting down to eat a large meal with distant relatives can be particularly difficult for someone recovering from anorexia. Walking into a loud room full of people is hard for a person with social anxiety. And watching everyone toast with a glass of wine might be especially challenging for someone who struggles with substance use.
Once you’ve taken care of yourself and laid the groundwork for a mentally healthy holiday, you can begin to think about what might make the holidays more enjoyable or less anxiety-provoking for your guests. These are just a few ideas:
- Embrace imperfection! A perfectly clean house stays perfectly clean for about 2 minutes; then things get spilled, people track in leaves, winter coats and casserole dishes are strewn about. Visualize these things as part of a happy holiday gathering in advance so that you’re less likely to respond with stress or irritability in the moment. When you let go of your angst and perfectionism, it will make it easier for your guests to do the same.
- Take the focus off food. Respect individual food choices throughout the day, and never pressure someone to eat more or less than they want. Try not to take it personally if someone declines the pie you spent hours baking. If you overhear other family members making comments that guilt, shame, or make fun of other guests’ food choices, change the topic or re-direct to a positive comment. For specific examples, visit this holiday blog from The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt.
- Create space for guests (or yourself) to take a time-out. When you don’t get to see one another often, relatives might feel pressured to spend every second soaking up each other’s company, but it can be overwhelming to cram a bunch of people into one space for hours on end. As the host, provide some quiet spaces for guests who might benefit from time away from the group. Many of us have loved ones who struggle with anxiety, or kids who get overstimulated easily by a bustling house. Consider setting up a guest room, garage, or den area with old family photos, a puzzle to work on, or a book with brain teasers in it. Art supplies or quiet toys can also work wonders for the kids. Let people know when they arrive that they are free to explore and use these areas you’ve prepared.
- Respect your guests’ choices. If you are going to be serving alcohol at your holiday party, ensure that you have several interesting non-alcoholic options as well. Never pressure someone to try a drink they decline, and refrain from comments that draw attention to an individual who is choosing not to drink an alcoholic beverage.
- Be authentic. If a visiting relative inquires about how you’re doing with work, school, or in a new relationship, resist the urge to placate by giving a stock answer like “everything is good” or “we’re doing fine.” It’s okay to answer honestly. If you just moved and the transition has been rough, say that. If you’re feeling worried because there have been layoffs at work, don’t be afraid to talk about your fears. Human connection is enhanced when we can relate to each other and it’s easier to relate to real feelings. If you focus on being authentic, you’ll notice others around you may be more willing to let their guards down too.
- Give the gift of gratitude! Before people leave, be sure to let them know you appreciate them or why you’re thankful they were able to be there for the holiday. This is a small gesture that can go a long way. Don’t neglect yourself either. At the end of the evening, when everyone is gone, make a list of 10 things for which you are grateful.
As a holiday host, you can do a lot to set the tone for a calm, joyful and mentally-healthy holiday. These are just a few small considerations to help you and your guests enjoy the celebration.
If you have other suggestions that have worked well for your family or friends, feel free to share them in the comments section below.
Kate Clemmer, LCSW-C, is the community outreach coordinator at The Center for Eating Disorders. Kate earned her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Maryland, Baltimore in 2005 with a focus on management and community organization and a specialization in child, adolescent, and family health. Before joining The Center for Eating Disorders in 2008, Kate provided school-based therapy to adolescents and families in Baltimore City and coordinated a multi-school health education and prevention program. As CED's outreach coordinator, Kate currently facilitates trainings and workshops in the community, provides outreach to individuals interested in CED's services, and coordinates CED's annual community events. These events include an annual symposium for health professionals, the Love Your Tree Body Image Campaign, and events in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Kate also facilitates CED's community support group for individuals with eating disorders and their friends/family, held on Wednesday evenings.