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Feighan: Holidays are a struggle for those hurting

Maureen Feighan

The card is still tucked away in an upstairs closet, a glittery mix of blue and silver depicting the city of Bethlehem with the words “O Holy Night.”

“It was great seeing you earlier this year,” reads the simple message inside.

My husband’s aunt sent it three years ago in mid-December. She’d visited our family that fall from her home on the West Coast, eager to meet our young kids whom she’d heard so much about but had never met.

We laughed and shared stories throughout the weekend, reveling in the beautiful October weather.

But by the time her holiday card arrived just two months later, I didn’t know how much she’d been struggling, about the unrelenting anxiety, depression and insomnia. Three days before Christmas, she took her life.

For many, the holidays are nothing like the Hallmark movies we’d like them to be. There is no handsome stranger who swoops into town to solve your problems and teach everyone the true meaning of Christmas.

Instead, they’re a painful reminder of loved ones who are gone, broken families and lives gone awry. For those already struggling with mental health issues such as depression, holiday stress and anxiety can exacerbate things even more.

Suicides don’t spike around the holidays – the Centers for Disease Control says that is actually a myth; suicide rates peak in the spring and fall – but they are still a serious public health problem.

According to the Michigan Association for Suicide Prevention, a nonprofit that aims to reduce the number of suicides and attempts by offering intervention training, more than 42,000 Americans die by suicide each year, including more than 1,100 in Michigan.

For people who are hurting, the holidays can be a “reality check,” says Tony Lewis, the MASP’s president, and Lindsay Baker, a prevention and wellness coordinator of LifeWays Community Mental Health.

There is the economic stress and “if you don’t have a family or a support system, that’s very stressful,” says Baker.

Lewis says one of the association’s main missions is to simply reduce the stigma around suicide.

“There are a lot of people who are afraid to talk about suicide because some people view it as a sign of weakness,” says Lewis.

Lewis says one of the reasons he’s so driven to fight that stigma is because he had friend and colleague who killed himself in 1995.

Joe had been having marital issues but he flew “under the radar,” as Lewis describes it. He didn’t withdraw, went to work daily and “his attitude was so good,” he says.

“To this day, I’m still rattled by it because nobody saw it,” Lewis says.

Brigid Lynch, a grief counselor who runs a Survivors of Suicide support group in Farmington Hills, says there’s also a stigma for survivors. She’s often told by survivors that their family or friends are reluctant to mention those who’ve died by name.

“This can be difficult for the survivor because they often need and want to talk about their loved one,” says Lynch in an email. “The survivors of suicide are also often afraid of bringing everyone else down.”

To help those who might be most at risk of harming themselves, Lewis and Baker say check in on them regularly, tell them you’ve noticed they’ve been struggling and tell them about the available resources. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is (800) 273-8255.

“But it depends on if they want it,” admits Lewis. “Sometimes people have given up. It takes a long time.”

One of the last conversations I had with my husband’s aunt was a surprisingly candid one about faith and the afterlife. After her death, I dissected it over and over, asking myself about missed clues.

I looked at her card again this week, the glittery cover, the carefully written message inside. I hope she is at peace.

(313) 223-4686

Twitter: @mfeighan