Physician suicide rates are unacceptably high at baseline and go even higher during the holidays. The holiday increase in suicide rates is not unique to physicians, though. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), A 2021 survey showed that 3 in 5 Americans feel their mental health is negatively impacted by the holidays.
And suicide is a problem that goes beyond the U.S. A few years ago, I learned about the World Happiness Report, which started in 2012. This is a report that uses global survey data to report how people evaluate their own lives in more than 150 countries worldwide. In the 2022 report, which is based on a three-year average from 2019-2021, Finland is reported to be the happiest country in the world. Also at the top are Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway. The United States came in at number 16. My first reaction to this was shock that people who live in such cold weather could be so happy. But what really interests me is that even though Scandinavian countries like Finland and Denmark are some of the happiest places on earth, they also suffer from some of the highest suicide rates, higher than the rest of Europe and the U.S. How can that be?
I’m sure there are many complex reasons, but combining this observation with what we see in the U.S. during the holidays brings me to a simple conclusion: It’s harder to be sad when everyone around you is happy. Not only do you feel sad, but people in happy places add extra suffering to their sadness by thinking something is wrong with them for feeling what they feel. Or, to put it another way, people believe that it’s OK to feel sad when you “should” feel sad (like at a funeral), but if you feel sad and think that you should feel happy, it adds insult to injury.
So what can you do when everyone around you is happy (or seems happy), and you’re not feeling the holiday cheer?
My first suggestion is to give yourself a reality check. Recognize that everyone around you probably isn’t as happy as you think they are. Many people put on a game face as they go through life (maybe even including you) for various reasons. One of my favorite posts that I read somewhere on social media read, “May your life be half as happy as you make it look on Facebook.” So stop comparing yourself to what you think is the norm because the yardstick you are measuring yourself against is faulty.
My second suggestion is to open up and be honest about your feelings with yourself and someone you trust. Let go of that game face and be vulnerable. Acknowledge and accept your feelings without judging yourself. The holidays can bring up a range of emotions in people. That’s OK, and that’s normal. Opening up a conversation with a friend, family member, or therapist might be scary but will bring you the support and connection you deserve.
And if you are one of the lucky ones who is truly happy and joyful this holiday season, there are things you can do to support others. Check-in with family and friends. And since people sometimes pretend to be doing well even when they are not, check in often. If someone opens up to you, listen with compassion. Ask them what they need from you before you give unsolicited advice and try to fix things for them. Sometimes all people need is a safe space to unload. And, of course, help people connect with professional help when needed.
Happy Holidays! (or not!)
Jennifer Shaer is a pediatrician and chief wellness officer, Allied Physicians Group, and a certified executive and life coach. She is founder, Shaer Coaching, and can be reached on Facebook. She is available for one-on-one coaching and speaking engagements: Feel free to schedule a conversation with Dr. Shaer or reach out by email.