A listening ear can be a gift for all seasons

December is usually a month when we get extraordinarily busy, and so is February. This year, with the Lunar New Year falling at the end of January, there will be two months that keep us on the go - not because of gift shopping, but because we are giving emotional support to people who need a listening ear.

For some people, the problems they face may dim the bright lights of Christmas and the Lunar New Year. It is also at this time of the year that Samaritans' services are more crucial than ever.

Our statistics show that, during the festive seasons between December and February, the number of phone calls received increases by 4-6per cent. The number of silent calls and night calls also peak during this period. Last Christmas, we took 1,064 calls over the Christmas fortnight, averaging 76 calls a day.

Although there is no evidence showing that the suicide rate increases significantly during festive seasons, our experience tells us that major festivals can be emotionally charged.

Holiday blues and post-holiday letdowns, even though they may be transitory, can lead to feelings of despair.

That is why an empathic ear is so important, and we operate a 24-hour multilingual hotline.

The triggers that set off holiday blues are many and various. Since 2008, the number of finance-related calls, including those expressing worries over job loss and debt problems, has been on the rise. With loss of income come relationship problems. Wanting to give gifts to loved ones during festive seasons, but not being able to do so, often adds stress and strain.

Loneliness is also singled out as a major cause for holiday blues. For people living alone or far away from their families, or those who are estranged from their families or have recently experienced a bereavement, thinking about the family gathering around the table for festive fare and about their being on their own can be a depressant.

The holiday season, however, can also intensify family misunderstandings and conflicts. A time that is expected to be joyful may lead to disappointment when being so close together in a small area over an extended period leads to quarrels and discontent. Often, such tensions may spill over into words of recrimination that cannot be taken back and may cause suicidal thoughts.

Whatever the holiday blues are, the callers are listened to by a Samaritan without prejudice and judgment.

Our hotline 2896 0000 is open all year round because even one death by suicide is too many, as it leaves devastating emotional effects on family and friends that may last for many years.

Liz Chamberlain is director of The Samaritans Hong Kong