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Christmas Blues Rampant in Fairfield County

This is the first of a two-part series on depression during the holidays. The second part will appear on Thursday.

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. — “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

At least that's what the popular Christmas song tells us over and over on the radio as we drive from one holiday event, party or mall shopping excursion to the next.

But for many, the “Blue Christmas” song better captures their mood.

In fact, as Christmas approaches, it can be the worst time of the year for a growing number of people who plunge into depression and anxiety from all the stress, over-planning, unrealistic expectations and not-so-happy family reunions, according to mental health counselors across Fairfield County.

They say the problem has worsened in recent years because of the ongoing economic crisis.

Mental health experts say that during the holidays — from Thanksgiving through New Year’s — millions of people experience a wide range of emotions, from mild melancholy, to clinical depression and even thoughts of suicide.

“In the mental health field we hear everything from people saying this time of year is overwhelming and they can’t wait for it to be over, to expressing suicidal thoughts,” said Nicholas Strouse, director of Westport Family Counseling. Strouse said seasonal affective disorder also plagues many, adding to their misery.

“If people are already feeling depressed, they are often more depressed as the holidays approach, and then there are others who have unrealistic expectations that the holidays will make them feel great ... when in fact, it actually just exacerbates the problem.”

Strouse, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in treating depression and mood disorders, said memories of past holiday experiences — both positive and negative — can be triggered when families gather. Or, for some, when they avoid their families during Christmas.

“Either way, these are powerful emotions and memories that go back many years, and when the expectations don’t live up to childhood memories and fantasies, it can cause a tremendous letdown,” Strouse said.

He also said our culture is obsessed with “buying the biggest, perfect gift, preparing the perfect dinner” or anticipating great gifts that never come.

“It’s a lot of pressure, and during tough economic times things are even more stressful because people compare what they were able to spend just a few years ago with what they can now,” said Strouse.

Enid Norris, a licensed marriage and family therapist at the Stamford Counseling Center, said there are many reasons people become depressed during the holiday season, but during 25 years in the mental health field she has found several main causes.

She said those include the recent loss of a spouse or other close relative, family stress and unrealistic expectations.

“People think they have to be happy this time of year, and when they aren’t, they feel even worse,” she said. “In our society, we are bombarded with happy songs and movies with happy endings, and all this celebrating. When you are feeling depressed, that just makes you feel more out of step.”

Both Strouse and Norris advise that people set limits and have realistic expectations of the holidays.

“Overall, people need to remind themselves it does not have to be an ideal holiday, they don’t have to have an ideal present, and that the big family get-together is likely to trigger a lot of ghosts from Christmases past,” said Norris  “It would be helpful to remember what the true nature of Christmas is, not having to make it perfect.”

Next: Tips and advice from mental health experts on how to avoid getting stressed-out as the holidays approach, and how to cope with feelings of depression during Christmas.

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