The Holidays and Mental Illness

Congratulations! You have managed to conquer a reasonable “to do” list: the house is clean and decorated; the presents are wrapped; the food is cooked; you have managed to create some “Christmas Magic” for family members; family and friends are on their way.


by Marion Bono
by Marion Bono

There is one more important thing to consider – your family member who has been recently diagnosed with a chronic, severe, and persistent mental illness. How will they react to the holiday celebration?

Hopefully they are on a medication that is working. Their feelings and thought processes have improved. Their negative symptoms are not so obvious.  However, they might still be experiencing some uncomfortable side effects of the medication such as nausea, confusion, drowsiness, nervousness, loss of energy, weight gain, and hand tremors.

In addition to the effects of medication, there could be some residual symptoms of the mental illness that are noticeable: isolation, irritability, fear, loss of interest, sadness, inability to experience pleasure, low self esteem, no desire or ability to talk, interact, socialize. This creates stress when family members who have not been seen since last year descend on your family member with hugs, kisses, and questions. To complicate matters, some guests are uncomfortable and do not know what to do around someone with mental illness; therefore they ignore them and avoid them making the situation even more awkward.

What should we do? One key to surviving this situation is to have expectations for ourselves and our loved one at realistic levels. We should be flexible and let go of the idea that this has be a perfect traditional holiday for our family member. We must accept ourselves and our loved ones without judging, criticizing, and advising.

The following comments have been made by family members in NAMI classes and support group:

“My family member retreats to his room a few times during the day.”

“My family member enjoys the young children. There seems to be less pressure.”

“We don’t have family in town so my son and I go to the casinos.”

“We go to a community holiday celebration. Sometimes we help serve.”

Mental health suggests that before the big day, we should include our family member in baking, decorating, and gift wrapping. These are usually less stressful situations, and the family member gets an opportunity to make an important contribution to the holiday celebration.

REMEMBER: We keep expectations of ourselves and our loved one at realistic levels.


Marion Bono, a member of NAMISWLA, facilitates a support group and teaches the Family-to-Family course, from which these articles are taken.