Everyone at some point has had a case of the holiday blues. The holidays are usually known as a joyous time of celebration and gathering. But they can also be a difficult time for many people at some point in their life, a catalyst for mental health issues like drug and alcohol abuse.
With Thanksgiving right around the corner, high expectations, loneliness, and stress can rather easily lead to holiday blues. According to a study from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, approximately 24% of people with a diagnosed mental illness find that the holidays make their condition “a lot” worse and 40% “somewhat” worse.” But they are also clear to differentiate these holiday blues from a diagnosed mental illness. In most cases, symptoms are temporary. But they can be serious if they last for more than two weeks and can lead to clinical conditions like substance use disorder.
The reasons for this may vary widely depending upon the person and their situation, but this idea that the holidays aren’t always a time of glee for everyone isn’t a new concept. Even the term holiday blues, despite not having a clear origin, has become a popular descriptor that encapsulates the concept. We agree it exists; but beyond that, nothing much is done about it.
This year, we cannot be so casual about the prospect of increasing mental health concerns, particularly as the holidays approach.
As the dust from the pandemic has begun to settle, we’ve learned that 2020 was the deadliest year in U.S. history, as Politico reported in March. While COVID-19 was an obvious contributor to this horrific record, its direct impact may have been outweighed by the pandemic’s broader consequences. For instance, drug overdose rates were also at an all-time high for our nation last year, according to a CNN report in July. More than 93,000 people died from overdoses alone in 2020, most of which were caused by opioid ingestion.
Last year was a disaster for mental health. The COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected many people’s mental lives and created new barriers for people who have mental illness and substance use disorders. According to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, about four in 10 adults in the U.S. reported anxiety or depressive disorder symptoms during the pandemic. This figure is a 400% increase from the one in 10 adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019. Sadly, people often turn to substances to self-medicate, and the same report showed a 12% increase in substance use, with young adults seeing a 25% spike over non-COVID-19 numbers.
As November comes to an end, many people will celebrate Thanksgiving and the upcoming holidays for the first time in over a year. That means there will likely be an excess of overindulgence, consumption, and celebration. And while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there’s a reason why this time of year requires extra caution.
According to Marcel Gemme of addicted.org, many people's holiday plans involve consumption of at least alcohol, which can easily lead to misuse. During Thanksgiving, for instance, beer and liquor sales increase by 270% and 114%, respectively. And drunk-driving fatalities increase by 77%. These shocking figures show the ugly truth of overindulgence.
We need to be wary of these risks and realities before we worsen an already tragic public health crisis — and not the one for which we have a vaccine.
We’re in the midst of two major public health epidemics colliding with each other. Let’s not kill ourselves celebrating our new “freedom.” If we can approach substance misuse with one-tenth of the ferocity that we’ve mustered to tackle COVID-19, we may just see the addiction epidemic finally improve as well.
Joseph Kertis of Newport, Oregon, is a health care professional-turned-journalist with experience in substance abuse and addiction recovery.