Thought Piece: This Christmas...alone
13 December 2019
Christmas can highlight the absence of connection, when so many others are connecting to their loved ones
This Christmas, I hope to be spending time with a family member. However, this hasn’t always been the case. In fact, dare I say, I’ve actually spent many Christmas’ alone throughout my late 20’s and 30’s. Mainly out of choice, due to the associated stresses that the festive season would bring – but sometimes not. As a nurse early in my career, working on inpatient units, it was the expectation that Christmas shifts would need to be filled and it was either a choice between working Christmas or New Year’s. I opted for the former, but more than often I would be working late Christmas Eve and or Christmas Day. Depending on the ward, it could feel at times quite sad and lonely. However, as nurses on shift, we would sometimes rally together to make our own Christmas, providing a sense of family – which I didn’t have to greet me on my return home. As time went on, I decided to move away from the inpatient environment and into the community which meant no longer hiding from the reality of what Christmas would stoke up. There is a sense that we should all be with family and enjoying a merry time. The reality is that for a lot of us, it becomes an annual reminder of how alone we really are.
In 2017, Age UK published the figure that just under 1 million older people would be alone for Christmas that year. However, it is not just older people, as my experience will testify to. The charity Stand Alone, who support estranged families found that 1 in 5 families will be affected by estrangement and over 5 million people have decided to cut contact with at least one family member. The charity highlight the stigma that is associated with isolation, which may prevent people from seeking support. The concern, of course, is that ongoing isolation and our sense of loneliness can impact our mental health. Working as a mental health nurse in adult mental health services, I often saw the associated seasonal change and festivity affect our clients as we moved closer to Christmas. In fact, as clinical staff, it was something we would have to factor in with our clients; the knowledge that for some, this time of the year was particularly difficult in that it re-invited some difficult early traumatic experiences. In some cases, this would result in further deterioration of their mental health.
In 2017, the Samaritans responded to 400,000 calls to their helpline over Christmas. They identified that one in three of these calls were for loneliness, affecting both young and old. Other calls consisted of violence, drug and alcohol misuse along with physical and mental health needs. Christmas Day itself saw 11,000 calls for emotional help support. Christmas can highlight the absence of connection when so many others are connecting to their loved ones.
For so many people, Christmas can trigger childhood memories, reveal difficult family dynamics or simply be a painful reminder that they have no family. For some, it may actually be protective for individuals not to spend time with family members over the period as they have identified a family situation as negatively impacting their own mental health. Instead, they make the choice of safeguarding themselves from this. In some cases, others may feel they are burdening friends by letting them know they are alone; and not being invited to join in festivities can evoke feelings of rejection.
It can be said the workplace offers not just routine and structure but a kind of corporate family in which we can spend time with. The workplace environment shutting shop over Christmas can leave the sense of one having to be with themselves – which, for some, can mean very little contact with the outside world.
So take a moment to look around your workplace to see how people really are feeling about Christmas this year. As a Mental Health Nurse Specialist for the workplace and as a human being who knows too well the feelings of aloneness at Christmas, I can recommend:
Getting out, visiting the high street, just to be around others or linking up with people where possible – which we appreciate is not easy.
Visiting local parks, to get out and be in nature in a more mindful way. This can help alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression, which may feel exacerbated when there’s a pressure to socialise. The effect of nature has been well documented through The Wildlife Trusts research with the BBC on loneliness and nature. In fact, for those trying to get back into work after a period of unemployment, we know that being outside and part of a group can be extremely beneficial in developing morale and offering a sense of purpose and connecting with others.
Importantly, for those affected this Christmas, there are services (listed below where you can speak with someone about how you might be feeling and not hold it all in. If there is a prolonged concern of isolation that may be affecting a person’s ability to function and/or, they are worried about their mental health then importantly, GPs can be a massive help. GPs can then enable access to mental health service support. As always, in an emergency, seek support through Accident and Emergency services.
Advice and support
Samaritans free helpline: 116 123
Stand alone, supporting people that are estranged: https://www.standalone.org.uk/about/
MIND Loneliness and Tips and support: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/loneliness/
Rethink Mental Illness: https://www.rethink.org
This article is by Angela Bagum, Mental Health Nurse and Specialist Practitioner, and clinical team member of Add | Wellbeing.
Add | Wellbeing is a mental health and wellbeing in the workplace programme from The Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust.