December 04, 2012


If your family is as far-flung as mine, the holiday season may be one of the few times of the year you’ll see some relatives. In my family’s holiday pictures, the kids usually look completely different from one year to the next! Maybe one of your relatives has changed too and unfortunately, may be struggling with a mental health issue.

Possible signs may include a lower than normal mood, a lack of interest in family activities (withdrawal), crying spells or other symptoms of depression.

As someone who struggles with anxiety, having my family’s support is critical. Before I was first diagnosed, I was very defensive about my symptoms, and would brush off people’s concerns (with some serious teenage attitude). Here is some advice I can share about helping someone you think may be in distress.

What You Can Do

  • Voice your concerns to another trusted relative. This person may have insight and suggestions about what your relative is experiencing. Remember, the goal isn’t to gossip –it’s to work together to help.
  • Talk to your relative. Seek out a quiet, private space. Ask how things are going in their life. If needed, you can prompt, “You seem a little sad or frustrated. Do you feel that way?” Don’t be judgmental or minimize issues.
  • Be ready to recommend resources. Your relative may know that something is “off,” but they may not know how to find help. Point them to the NAMI website: for general information and program resources.
  • If your relative agrees, offer to make an appointment for them with a local mental health care provider. If you can, offer to go with them to the first appointment – for moral support. Having a familiar face in the waiting room also can make a doctor’s visit much less intimidating.
  • As part of your conversation, you may want to mention seeing NAMI’s “You Are Not Alone” campaign which highlights famous historical leaders who have experienced mental health challenges, such as Abraham Lincoln. Your relative is not alone and should not feel ashamed.
  • Follow up! Get in touch with your relative after the holiday. Ask them how they are doing. If you discussed any steps for evaluation and treatment plans, ask if they have taken them. Be encouraging and supportive.

Stay Connected

Noticing a change in a family member can be uncomfortable. You may not know how to help or feel that it’s “not your place” to raise your concern with them, especially if it’s someone you don’t see very often. However, with respectful, empowering communication, you will be helping more than you think.

Sometimes, a relative who is struggling will ignore questions, or will become angry. Remember, the only thing you can do is to let someone know that you care, that you are there for them and that you support them.

I am so grateful that I have family members who offer consistent, patient support. I hope someone reading this will be able to offer such support to someone in their life this holiday season.

Sarah Evans is a M.P.H. candidate at the School of Public Health & Health Services at George Washington University.

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