Mental Illness and the Gulf Oil Spill

We live far from the Gulf of Mexico, yet we’ve visited and spent a great deal of time in that area. Watching the news makes the tragedy of the BP oil spill feel close to home. While we want to know, we need to know, what is happening and why, the constant news coverage also leaves us with a feeling of hopelessness — what can we do, being so far away? How can we help? How can we prevent such tragedies? What lessons should we as a nation learn? Important questions without easy answers. And they leave us with a general feeling of malaise that we have started calling the August Angst. (Although we suspect it is not limited to the month of August, and it may evolve into a September Snit.) 

So naturally we found it interesting, but not surprising, that the mental health of people living in communities along the coast is affected. This story by Medical News Today outlines some of the findings of a study by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. Among not-so-surprising results: Over one-third of parents report that their children have experienced either physical symptoms or mental health distress as a consequence of the oil spill.

If we, who live at least a thousand miles away, are feeling mental health distress, it only makes sense that those who are so close (and whose livelihood may depend on the Gulf) are affected. We’re glad someone is studying this issue, and we’d like to send good thoughts out to you Gulf Coastal residents. Let us know how we can help.

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Coping with the Holiday Blues

The holidays are upon us. I was pleased to find in my research that the rumors of increased suicide attempts during the holiday period has been proven inaccurate. In fact, the opposite seems to be true — with more people reporting improvements in mental health, possibly because we typically interact more with other people during this season than during the rest of the year.

But what if, due to no fault of your own, the holidays reflect more about what you’ve lost than what you have?

That was my feeling about the holiday season for many, many years. Memories of happier times did not comfort me. I went through the motions, but felt like Christmas — the major holiday of my childhood — was simply another day where the thing I wanted most (my mother) was missing.

Not only was the thing I wanted unobtainable, but gifts in general felt like a poor substitute. Carols? Cookies? Reindeer? Nah. Didn’t do a thing for me. I was looking for something that could not be found in a store or under a tree or even in a church.  Like the first part of the song, “Where Are You Christmas?”, I had changed, but the holidays were a chain to my past.

This is my 21st Christmas without my mother. That’s a lot of crappy holidays. Too many. But I’m please to report some improvements over the past few years. The major reason is the birth of my own children, who are enchanted by the magical side of Christmas. They believe in Santa, and I love watching their excitement. It has brought a new joy into the season. Hang around with young children during the holidays. It’s much more fun.

I’ve also focused less on myself and more on others.  Giving to others is one relatively simple way to find the spirit of the holidays when it feels like it’s missing. I make donations during this time of year. They are small, but I make sure they count. I give to people and charities doing work I believe in. I donate time to organizations that make a difference. In helping others, I help myself reconnect with what is truly important in our lives. And in this economy, the need is greater than ever.

I also have given myself permission to give up parts of Christmas that feel more burdersome than celebretory. I made three batches of simple cookies instead of 10 batches of those tasty, but very complicated, recipes handed down by my grandmothers. Our dinner is also simplified — only the dishes we truly enjoy will find it to our table this year. No homemade gifts from me either — great idea, but I don’t enjoy crafting enough to make that my priority. I still do Christmas cards because I enjoy receiving them, but the letter inside is printed from a computer instead of handwritten (my preference).

Another idea that I like is simply skipping the holidays. Leave the decorations in the attic, find someone to pick up your mail, get a cheap flight and hotel on the Internet, and then take off for someplace tropical. If the holidays are painful, I think doing something radically different is an okay way to cope with the situation. I confess that I have not put this option into action, but I reserve the right to in future years.

My own experience has led me to believe that time does help.  Those 20 years of cruddy Christmases are not a life-long sentence. Each year is gets a little easier as I find ways to make the holiday season reflect what I feel is important. It’s a journey, not a destination.