Personal Health

Middle Age + Holidays: A Lethal Combination?

Suicide rates are alarmingly high among middle-aged Americans, and the holiday season often amplifies the problem.
A recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that suicide rates have increased to their highest level in at least 25 years among people aged 45-54. And women had the highest rates of suicide in this age group. The study doesn't explain why there is this dramatic shift in suicide rates among middle-aged Americans. But experts interviewed by Mike Strobe of the Associated Press describe these statistics as a national "wake-up call" and an "unrecognized tragedy".

The National Mental Health Association reports that at any given time there are 54 million Americans living with a mental health concern and need treatment. But unfortunately of those people requiring treatment only 8 million seek help. And during the holidays those individuals may be more susceptible to increased feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.

To me this is the unrecognized tragedy -- that even in 2007 many of us will not get the help we need due to the stigma (denial, embarrassment and shame) associated with having a mental health concern. Another fact that adds salt to this wound is that the vast majority of individuals who get therapy, medication or a combination of both get well. We need to reframe in our minds that mental health concerns are health concerns!

And during the holidays, how many of us choose to numb out by using drugs and alcohol rather than getting the appropriate treatment? In fact, the CDC listed drug overdoses and poisonings as one of the top reasons for the shift in deaths in that middle-aged group.

So what can you do to help your loved ones and yourself, especially during the holiday season and beyond?

*Get past the stigma. Remember mental health concerns are health concerns. I know you'd get medical help if you had blunt forced trauma to your body -- well, this type of concern is just as serious. And studies show that not getting the mental health treatment you need affects your overall health and certainly your wellbeing.

*Get the help you need. You should not diagnose yourself. Sometimes it's difficult to discern if you are feeling sad or anxious or have a more serious mental health concern. They are different and will require different treatments. Go to your health care provider as soon as possible and tell them how you are feeling. They can give you an appropriate referral for the proper treatment you need.

*Talk to those you trust and tell them how you are feeling. Surround yourself with loved ones that you care about and that will support you. Reduce your social isolation by making a concentrated effort (if possible) to have face to face interactions and embrace those you truly care about.

*Take time to relax (even a 10 minute nap will help), breathe deeply (we all hold our breath when stressed) and set limits and boundaries for others when you feel yourself getting overwhelmed.

*Move your body in space at a moderate pace for at least 30 minutes (every day is what the American Heart Association recommends). Just taking a walk helps clear out the cobwebs and does remove some of the mental stress (even if temporarily).

*Give back. Volunteer, get out of the house and help someone else. That's amazingly therapeutic. And that interaction will give you a reality check when you compare your life to others.

Let's change those alarming statistics!

Here's to a holiday season that brings you peace of mind and sweet, loving embraces.
Kathy Kastan, LCSW/MAEd, is President of the Board of Directors of WomenHeart, a national organization dedicated to reducing death and disability among women living with heart disease.
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