December 14, 2021 Healthy Living

Give Yourself the Gift of Good Mental Health

The holidays can be a magical time of year and often conjure up images of sparkling trees, falling snow, and families gathered to exchange meals, gifts, and pleasantries. But for the millions of Americans suffering with mental illness, the holidays can be anything but the most wonderful time of the year.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 65 percent of Americans living with mental health disorders say their conditions worsen around the holidays, and about 40 percent of people say holiday-related stress has led to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

Whether you’re spending your first holiday season alone, struggling to make ends meet, or just feeling pressured to fit into social norms, the holidays can be a period of great stress and deep grief.

To make matters worse, the holidays are also coupled with shorter, colder, darker days. Less exposure to natural light can lead to new or increased symptoms of depression. The American Academy of Family Physicians says as many as 20 percent of people experience mild symptoms of seasonal affective disorder – or SAD – and about 5 percent of the population suffers from severe winter depression.

Unfortunately, there’s no avoiding the colder temps this time of year (or the chilly reception you may get from your in-laws at Christmas dinner) but there are ways to set yourself up for a less stressful holiday season.

Don’t overcommit to social gatherings, gift giving, or other holiday traditions. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the hustle and bustle, but if it’s not for you or you’d rather sit this one out, politely decline.

Avoid isolation. If you’re living alone or have small social network, it’s doubly important to make sure you’re connecting with others. Local churches, community and senior centers, and volunteer groups offer a convenient way to get together with people, even if just for a few hours a week.

Get exercise. The shorter, darker days make it difficult to stay active. It’s important to create a consistent workout routine that keeps you moving. Even if it’s just an afternoon walk or series of stretches in the morning, make a schedule and stick to it.

Avoid overeating. There’s no shortage of treats, sweets, and other indulgent meals this time of year. It’s okay to indulge on occasion but overdoing it will leave you feeling sluggish and could lead to unintended weight gain. Be sure to monitor your calorie intake and balance your diet with nutritious foods that provide the energy you need to power through the season.

Limit alcohol. If the added stress of the holidays has you reaching for an extra glass of wine (or two), it may be time to rethink your coping strategies. Drinking alcohol may provide upfront relief but it’s only short term and can lead to long-term problems. If you’re feeling the urge to have a drink, consider going for a walk or run, calling a friend, or meditating.

These are just some of the many steps you can take to set boundaries this holiday season, and hopefully reduce your level of stress. If these simple behavior changes aren’t enough to boost your spirits, it may be time to get help.

CDPHP and many other health plans offer a wide variety of options when it comes to treating mental health and substance use disorders. If you’re struggling, give your health insurer a call to discuss your options. At CDPHP, our in-house team of trained mental health care experts understands what you’re going through and can point you in the right direction. Most insurers also have an afterhours crisis line which can assist outside normal business hours.

If it’s not an emergency and you’d like to schedule an appointment with a therapist in your community, CDPHP or another health plan can help you find a provider that’s both close to home or the office and accepting new patients. Many local therapists now offer virtual mental health care options, meaning you can meet with your clinician over the phone, laptop, or computer.

Much like traditional doctors, most mental health care providers were forced to make the move to virtual care during the pandemic as therapists were unable to meet with patients in person. The unintended, positive consequence has been fewer patients missing appointments. Prior to the pandemic, no-show rates for therapists hovered around 30 percent. With telemedicine on the scene, those no-show rates have dropped to about 7 percent.[1]

Still, CDPHP understands the pandemic has created an increased demand for mental health care services. According to the CDC, 40 percent of adults in the U.S. have been struggling with mental health or substance disorders since the pandemic began.

Recognizing the impact that COVID-19 has had on our community – and the increased demand for mental health care services of our members – CDPHP recently expanded its network and now offers virtual mental health care services with the following:

  • aptihealth provides virtual mental health care services for adults and adolescents ages 12 and up and specializes in the treatment of mild to severe and persistent mental illness. aptihealth is able to see patients within 48 hours.
  • Doctor On Demand provides virtual mental health care services for children, adolescents, and adults and specializes in anxiety, depression, postpartum, relationships, trauma, and loss. Doctor On Demand is able to see patients with 48 hours.
  • Valera Health provides virtual mental health care services for children, adolescents, and adults and specializes in culturally competent care, including mental health care services for LGBTQ patients. Valera Health is able to see patients within one week of an initial consultation.

It’s not always easy to accept the fact that you need help, especially during the holidays when we’re supposed to feel merry and bright. No one wants to be a Scrooge, but if the holiday blues have you singing a different tune, give yourself a gift that will last a lifetime and commit to investing in your mental, emotional, and spiritual health.


John D. Bennett, MD, FACC, FACP
About the Author

John D. Bennett, MD, FACC, FACP, is president and CEO of Capital District Physicians’ Health Plan, Inc. (CDPHP), an award-winning, physician aligned, not-for-profit health plan based in Albany, NY. Bennett has held the position since 2008 after serving more than 10 years as chair, vice chair, and board member for CDPHP. During his tenure, CDPHP has been ranked among the top-performing health plans in New York and the nation, most recently named #1 in Customer Satisfaction in the 2023 J.D. Power Member Health Plan Study. Under his leadership, CDPHP has also become known as a model employer regionally and nationally and was recently named among the top five Best Companies to Work for in New York by the Society for Human Resource Management, as well as Forbes Best-in-State Employers 2022. Prior to joining CDPHP, Bennett served as founding member and CEO of Prime Care Physicians, PLLC. During his tenure, he co-led a team of 25 cardiologists and helped grow the practice to a 100-physician multi-specialty group. Bennett is board certified by the National Board of Medical Examiners and the American Board of Internal Medicine, with subspecialties in internal medicine and cardiology. He earned his medical degree at SUNY-Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn, and a Bachelor of Science degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Bennett completed an internship and residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in cardiovascular disease at Albany Medical Center. He is a Fellow of the American College of Cardiology and the American College of Physicians. Bennett is currently board chair for the Center for Economic Growth and the Capital Region Chamber, and vice chair for the Palace Theatre. Bennett also serves on the boards of the New York eHealth Collaborative (NYeC), the Alliance of Community Health Plans (ACHP), America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Russell Sage Colleges. Bennett is a member of the New York Public Health and Health Planning Council where he helps shape decisions related to New York State's public health and health care delivery system. Well-known locally and nationally for advancing health care innovation, Bennett was recently named to Crain’s New York Business 2021 Notable in Health Care, as well as the Albany Business Review’s Power 50 list.

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