Why Treatment Is Important Even During the Holidays, and How to Know If Your Teen Needs Help

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The end of the year is traditionally a time when families come together—to celebrate a holiday, revisit annual traditions, or take a trip during the winter vacation. Hence, for many parents, it may feel like the worst possible time for a teen to be away from the family in residential care. However, not only is treatment important during the holidays, it can mean the difference between relapse and continued recovery from mental health and substance abuse issues.

Moreover, getting through the holidays in 2020 may be even harder than usual. The pandemic presents new complications that will undoubtedly amplify stress during what is already a stressful time of year. For many families, the tension between what they wish the holidays could look like and what they need to look like this year, in order to prioritize safety, is likely to create conflict and disappointment.

Therefore, a compassionate and caring treatment environment can provide teens with what they need most during this fraught time: a stable routine, a supportive community, and continued progress toward sustainable healing.

Why Treatment is Important During the Holidays

Research shows that depression and anxiety significantly increase during the holidays. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 24 percent of people with a diagnosed mental health condition find that the holidays make their symptoms “a lot” worse. Furthermore, another 40 percent report that the holidays make their condition “somewhat” worse.”

In the words of one survey participant: “The holiday season beams a spotlight on everything that is difficult about living with depression. The pressure to be joyful and social is tenfold.”

Participants also reported that the holidays increased feelings of loneliness and time spent comparing the present with happier times in the past—both of which will be further heightened in 2020 as a result of the pandemic.

Suicide and Relapse Rates During the Holidays

It’s a natural assumption that suicide rates increase during the holidays, given the documented upticks in stress, anxiety, and depression. But research shows that the suicide rate is actually highest in the spring.

The Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ+ teens and young adults, reports a 20 to 40 percent lower rate of calls during holidays. But they also note that calls go up by 20 percent in the two days after a holiday, specifically after Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. The organization theorizes that this may be due to difficult interactions with loved ones during the holiday itself, which make themselves felt in the days following. That’s just one example of why treatment is important during the holidays.

Furthermore, the stressors of this year make previous statistics unreliable. Researchers say that the social isolation, national anxiety, and barriers to mental health treatment caused by COVID-19 may be creating a “perfect storm” for suicide risk. Consequently, this combination of factors has the potential to increase suicide rates to an extent that is difficult to predict.

Moreover, substance abuse recovery and the holidays are an uneasy mix. The presence of alcohol at holiday events can trigger a relapse for teens healing from substance abuse issues. Again, this likelihood is increased by the current environment. The frequency of both alcohol and cannabis use among adolescents has gone up during social isolation. And increased mental health and substance use issues among adults due to the pandemic make it easier for teens to get access to addictive substances.

5 Signs Your Teen or Young Adult Needs Help

With teens spending more time at home and many young adults back in the family home, parents have more opportunities to observe their behavior. Hence, they need to be vigilant about differentiating understandable feelings of sadness and anxiety from symptoms indicating that your teen needs help, especially with getting through the holidays.

Here are five signs to watch for:

  1. Deteriorating self-care: It’s a big red flag when young people neglect their grooming, don’t care about what to wear, and stop exercising. Sleep and eating habits are also indicators of whether a young person’s mental health is suffering. Is your teen or young adult sleeping too much or too little, or eating too much or too little? Some variation in all these factors is understandable as a result of remote school and work. However, an inability to develop new routines of self-care may indicate an underlying mental health issue, such as situational depression.
  2. Withdrawing from interaction and activities: This is one of the most important signs to watch for. If a young person is no longer enjoying the activities, friendships, and social interactions that used to bring them pleasure, it may indicate why treatment is important, even during the holidays. It’s true that many people are experiencing decreased levels of happiness right now. But a healthy teen or young adult will still find ways to tap into joy through their relationships and activities.
  3. A sense of hopelessness: Again, hope can be a difficult emotion to connect with during this pandemic. And that’s particularly true for young people, who know that they will be navigating the effects of COVID-19 for years into the future. The question is whether a young person’s concerns and anxieties are balanced by moments of hopefulness and positivity. If not, treatment may be an essential next step.
  4. Unexplained physical problems: Anxiety, depression, and trauma can manifest as stomachaches, headaches, or pain in other areas of the body. If there is no evident reason for these symptoms, and a doctor can rule out any physiological cause, a mental health issue may be the underlying cause.
  5. Lack of motivation and inability to concentrate: Is your teen or young adult child having a hard time focusing? Do they seem to lack the inspiration to accomplish work or academic projects? Many young people find online school and work much less motivating than in-person experiences. (Here’s how parents can help.) However, an inability to concentrate and complete tasks is worth investigating as a possible sign that treatment is important.

Benefits of Teen Treatment During the Holidays

Entering or staying in treatment can be critical during this season for a variety of reasons. To begin with, longer stays in treatment yield the most positive outcomes.

In addition, one of the most significant reasons why treatment is important during the holidays is to avoid holiday triggers and family conflicts that bring on symptoms of trauma, substance abuse, or other mental health issues. That’s why the best holiday relapse prevention plan for teens is often starting or staying in residential care.

Moreover, continuing treatment throughout this season is a way to ensure that teens don’t engage in risky behavior, such as driving while intoxicated or breaking social-distancing guidelines. As tough as it may be for families to be apart, residential care can be the safest place for a struggling teen during this time.

Furthermore, staying sober during the holidays is often a new experience for clients recovering from substance abuse. Continuing to practice self-care and build new skills during this time gives them a sense of what a healthy holiday can look like. And they have the satisfaction of knowing that they are making progress on their recovery goals, rather than derailing them during a trip home that makes them more vulnerable to relapse. In addition, treatment provides structured time for reflection and looking toward the future. 

What to Expect During the Holidays at Newport Academy

The holidays at Newport Academy focus on community and celebration. Our teens and their staff and mentors enjoy healthy holidays feasts prepared by our expert chefs. Teens connect with family via technology, and receive presents from home. Our sober holiday activities include games, hikes, music-making, and creative arts.

Mindfulness and reflection are ongoing components of our programming, and can be especially meaningful during the holidays. The daily schedule includes time to focus on personal goals and positive forward movement. In addition, teens practice meditation, journaling, and guided imagery each evening.

Furthermore, time with a supportive community of peers is one of the biggest benefits, and one of the best answers to the question, Why is treatment important during the holidays? Surrounded by others who understand what they’re going through and who are equally committed to the healing journey, our teens feel a sense of belonging and connection, despite being away from family.

The Number-One Reason Why Treatment Is Important During the Holidays

In summary, spending Thanksgiving or Christmas in rehab—or another holiday—may be difficult for both parents and kids. Parents may feel guilty about not bringing kids home, and kids may feel resentful.

However, making this hard choice is ultimately enormously beneficial for the entire family. Ultimately, missing a holiday season together is a small price to pay for the gifts that treatment provides: a healthier, happier child and a more harmonious family life.

 

Sources:

JAMA Psychiatry. 2020;77(11): 1093–1094.

J Adol Health. 2020 Sept;67(3): 354–361.

J Adol Health. 2020 Oct;67(4): 467–468.

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2012 Feb; 9(2): 531–547.