Christmas has a direct impact on our mental health

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The narrative on loneliness in the UK is synonymous with Christmas. As it should be. Loneliness and isolation are a fast-growing concern of councils and government and have been linked to lower life expectancy and depression.

Christmas - a time for joy and togetherness with loved ones - only accentuates the isolation some feel every other month of the year.

No more evident is the problem of loneliness and isolation than with those in later life. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, over half of all people aged 75 and over live alone, and two fifths all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company.

The Mental Health Foundation in partnership with Housing & Care 21 are running the project Standing Together, a project which is funded by the Big Lottery for the next three years. Facilitating weekly self-help group for people in retirement and extra care settings with memory loss, mental health issues, learning disabilities, and for those who experience significant loneliness. Hearing from some of the group participants, it is clear that Christmas has a direct impact on their mental health.

Ann, 62, on one hand, has always loved Christmas: "My daughter says I’m worse than her kids. Presents for the grandchildren first, all 17 of them. Then my five kids. But I loved Christmas most when it was just us kids with mum and dad. Before we all grew up and got married."

Margaret also has fond memories of Christmas as a child.

“I worked on the farm on Christmas day. We always fed the animals before even thinking about feeding ourselves. I loved it though. I don’t like Christmas down here at all. I like the countryside and want to be back there. There we had everything we needed. We didn’t need a ration book because we grew all our food. Even duck eggs! I’d be sent to collect the duck eggs in the fields - they always lay in the same place. I hated them. My mum would cook my dad duck eggs every morning and I’d have to stand outside in the garden. The smell was too strong!"

Like Margaret, many of the group members dislike Christmas in later life. Janet, 72, has been living in Dartford for the past six years, and has no family around her. On the weekends when the day centre is closed, she speaks to no one: “I sit at the front door and watch people and cars go by to cut out the loneliness. But over Christmas when the day centre isn’t open for four days I feel so lonely and depressed I cry my eyes out from having nowhere to go. I miss my family. I think about my father, who every Christmas morning would have a dash of whiskey in his tea as is tradition.”

83-year-old Jeanette dreads Christmas, and feels down all the way through January: “I’m so alone, have been for some years. So I just listen to the radio. It’s just a normal day for me. My happiest memories are from when my mum and sister were alive and we could have a proper Christmas. We had a turkey and decorations, and people would come round. When you get old, all your friends have died. When you’re young and alone it’s ok because you can get out and visit people. But I can’t get out easily, so I just have to stay here on my own.”

These groups are a reminder of how vivid memories of Christmas can be as a child, and how seasonal festivities have the ability to bring the child out in all of us. But the juxtaposition between happy childhood memories and the confusion and fear people in later life can at times feel is crippling when all alone. It’s so important to acknowledge how Christmas can affect someone’s mental health, and understand what we can do to support those in our communities without support networks of their own.

Our self-help groups, rooted in building relationships with people, give people the opportunity to talk in a safe space and reflect on how to manage life’s complexities. Janet has only been to the groups a few times, but looks forward to them: “I don’t really know the people yet and it will take me some time to get used to it, but I like them.”

Seeing people regularly, listening and initiating conversations will impact on these group members’ quality of life. Evaluations three groups in the pilot project 2012-13, found members have demonstrated their ability to learn new skills, form friendships and explore difficult issues in a caring and supportive way with others facing similar challenges.

If you or someone you know is alone this Christmas, the Campaign to End Loneliness provides some helpful resources.

You don’t have to be alone to feel down these holidays, and it is important to try and remember how to maintain your mental health and wellbeing. Here are 10 ways to take care so you can avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Your donations enable us to carry out research, develop services and campaign on issues like loneliness and later life. This Christmas we would greatly appreciate your contribution to continue our vital work.