Mental health a concern during holiday season

The holiday season is a time of joyful family gatherings, but also can be a time of great stress for those with mental health issues.

Dr. Tiffani Ashland, a crisis intervention training coordinator at Northwestern Community Services, said crisis situations may include many issues, from bouts of depression to suicidal thoughts and even episodes of schizophrenia.

“People who are mentally ill may get suicidal and they may have hallucinations,” she said.

Ashland is also a liaison with area law enforcement personnel, including Winchester police. That department’s officers have undergone training and education about handling mental health crisis situations through Northwestern, which is an outreach patient service based out of Front Royal that specializes in mental health.

Winchester police Detective Lisa Hyde received crisis interventions training seven years ago from New River Valley and now helps Northwestern train Winchester officers.

Both Hyde and Ashland noted that the number of cases of mental illness seem to increase during each holiday season.

To Hyde, the reason why the holiday season contains so many crisis situations is due to increased demands.

“During the holidays, you have deadlines with everything: work, parties and even family get-togethers,” Hyde said.

She added this stress “builds and builds before it comes crashing down.”

Ashland said that although the highest rates of suicide and crisis situations occur during the spring and summer months, the holiday season poses many stresses as well.

“The season brings on more stressors … and it seems like there is more to do,” Ashland said.

That stress, Ashland said, can cause an individual already suffering from depression to have worse symptoms this time of year.

She said a person in need of help could be suffering from seasonal affective disorder. She said this illness can make people’s moods darker due to not receiving as much sunlight as in other seasons. Or a person who is suffering from episodes of schizophrenia may not be taking his medicine for it.

Northwestern has educated officers in the Winchester Police Department on crisis intervention since 2007, Ashland said. This education is done through 40 hours of training and includes learning how to respond when a person is suffering from a mental illness.

“The Winchester PD has been very progressive in embracing the [crisis intervention training] concept,” Ashland said. “They get it.”

Hyde said that while each case is different, when a call about a crisis situation is received, they will attempt to keep the individual on the phone until an officer arrives.

From there, Hyde said, the officer can provide assistance by talking to the individual.

Ashland said that officers will provide help by “having someone to talk to, finding a [therapist] or a psychiatrist and even possibly admitting someone to a psychiatric hospital.”

The overall goal of any response, Hyde said, is to help de-escalate the situation.

Ashland noted that people not trained in crisis intervention can offer help during the holiday season, though she said it can sometimes be difficult to diagnose mental illness.

“Not everyone who is having a bad day is suffering from a mental illness,” Ashland said.

Ashland said that simply reaching out is important and can make a big difference. Some people, she said, are afraid and they think talking or reaching might make the situation worse. “For some people, it’s hard to ask for help or support.”

She added, “If you are worried about a friend, check in on them.”

Both Hyde and Ashland urged anyone with knowledge of crisis situations to contact the anonymous 24-hour Concern Hotline at 540-667-0145 as well as the Northwestern Community Services Crisis Response Center at 540-635-4804.

The Crisis Response Center is open Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com