The holiday season has officially started. I have begun to make a list of the families in my practice that should receive grocery vouchers so that they can afford food for the holidays. I also make a list for the teenagers who are living on their own. I confirm addresses and watch young people’s faces closely so that I can discern whether they are, in fact, housed. I ask them if their housing is safe, looking them right in the eye. I have a list of numbers on the corner of my desk for families or youth to call if they need housing. I have lists of where free holiday dinners are provided and where one can sign up to receive gifts. I am not trained for any of this. In fact, few doctors are trained for this work, but we all do it. The hardest part of this work is finding a balance between the fear I have about how precarious my patients’ living situations can be and the realization that I have a responsibility to make that situation more secure.
I know there are many who will say that this is not a doctor’s job, but I cannot escape the knowledge that I have that says otherwise. Every doctor I know works for the best for their patients even when the best has nothing to do with pathology, physiology or medicines. Every doctor I know asks their patients questions about their income and work and family life.
The sharp contrast between the glittery mall displays and the realities of many lives is especially evident at this time of year. While so many are focused on what they want the holiday to be, others are thinking of what they need so that the holiday is bearable. The impact of this contrast on mental health is significant.
At a time of year when family is glorified, the difficulties in one’s own family become highlighted. The support of family members is known to be a factor in good health, but how many people do you know who dread the “family” events that come with the holidays? How many of those events end much differently than sitcoms would have us think? Many of the youth I see live in care. Some will be preparing for a visit with family of one kind or another. Some will have days or even a week with their family. Helping youth stay realistic about these visits and the holidays is very difficult for those of us who care for these youth.
I am always most concerned about the youth who do not have a family to visit. Most people around them will be planning a visit and excitedly buying and wrapping gifts and planning travel. The youth without a family will be sharing their Christmas lists with a youth worker or social worker. You will receive gifts, often thoughtful gifts of things you want, but you will not have what you really want which is love, true affection from someone who has known you all your life and is happy for just being able to hang out with you. As a psychiatrist, I could point out the link between “hanging out” and endorphins but I think this just serves to distance us from the feelings. If you can understand what a young person with no family is feeling, you know that this feeling is not good for someone’s mental health.
As a physician, I always take some time off in November or early December to prepare emotionally for the holiday season, whose starkness is so evident in psychiatry. Then I come back to work ready to spend the next month social determinants of health.