Reach out to the lonely at Christmas

The holiday season can amplify anxiety and feelings of loneliness, but we can make a difference by reaching out to those feeling down in the dumps

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 December, 2014, 5:40pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 December, 2014, 5:40pm

Tis the season to be jolly, right? The holidays are associated with joyful times with friends and family but the festive period can trigger a bout of the blues. Weeks of wall-to-wall cheer can act as stressors, telescoping anxiety about relationships or feelings of loneliness.

Dense and compact, the living environment in Hong Kong provides little space for socialising with neighbours despite the physical proximity, says Lora Lee, a registered child psychologist and parenting counsellor.

"People may not realise it, but a kind word can mean a lot to people who are lonely and isolated," she says. "This is especially true for those who have recently undergone divorce, separation or bereavement.

"Imagine their situations - last year same time they were still with their family and loved ones, but this year they are on their own.

"If you are their colleague, neighbour, family or friend and you know that they are going through a tough time, or if you know that this neighbour next door is always crying or drinking in the middle of the day, don't be shy to reach out.

"Just casually ask them if they have any plans for Christmas and invite them for a hike, a game of football, a Christmas gathering, or even a play date if you have children of similar age.

"It is important to extend an invitation to them, so that they do not have to fear rejection."

Lee finds demand for male support groups on depression and anger issues tends to spike as the Christmas season approaches. There is a great need, she says, for men who have undergone difficult breakups in a relationship or marriage to have an avenue for mutual support, because they are less likely than women to reach out to other people for comfort.

It is not uncommon for men to suffer what Lee calls "functional depression", when they go through the motions of doing their job and paying the bills, but are crumbling inside with feelings of anger, anxiety and depression.

Some may even get so used to anger and depression that they no longer recognise these toxic feelings.

"Christmas is a great time to give them a gentle nudge that life could be different," Lee says. "By inviting them to healthy social gatherings, you remind them how it could feel without all these issues, and encourage them to make a fresh start."

In the New Territories, Chester Chan now makes it a point to greet everyone entering his residential building with a smile. He began working as a security guard two years ago after returning from Canada. Yet within that short time, he has witnessed several suicides, including one person who leapt from his building and landed outside the foyer.

"After the jump happened, a lot of colleagues were reluctant to take the night shift. But I chose to do my duty," says Chan (not his real name). "I just thought, if I keep on smiling at everyone who walks through the door and relives the tragedy in their mind, they would feel better. There is only so much I can do, but I do want to bring positive energy to where I work.

A kind word can mean a lot to people who are lonely and isolated
Lora Lee, child psychologist

"Sometimes when you look at a person, you know that he is just completely empty inside. I wish there was someone in his immediate community that he could reach out to … something more than just a hotline."

Clarence Tsang, the executive director of Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong, says meaningful conversations and the willingness to listen can make a world of difference to support people facing depression, or even contemplating suicide.

So outdoor activities are often more suitable than parties where there could be lots of drinking but little talk, he says.

People with suicidal thoughts would normally display some symptoms in the way they behave or talk - they may suddenly lose interest in the things they used to enjoy doing, lose control over their temper, or become unusually silent.

They may also start telling their colleagues, friends or families to take care of things that are important to them, like an important work project, a pet, a beloved one, or an item of great sentimental value.

"If you ever pick up on those clues, don't be afraid to ask that person if he or she needs any help," Tsang says. "You would be surprised how many people find it easier to open up to strangers or acquaintances because sometimes there is only so much they can tell their friends and families.

"Many of us may make the mistake of asking a friend or family member to stop talking about negative thoughts. It is like closing the door on their face."

Having run a community-based mental health programme at Caritas Hong Kong for six years, Wong Chi-kan says it is important not to label people suffering depression as being negative or needy.

Wong finds that one of the biggest obstacles for people suffering depression is a feeling of guilt and shame. Many feel ashamed for not being able to manage their emotions, and fear the stigma associated with mental illness. However, once they have overcome such hurdles and get help, they can be empowered to become integral to building a support system in their community.

Through the programme, Wong reached out to more than 6,000 people who previously sought support to overcome depression. Several hundred of them eventually became ambassadors within their communities, promoting mental health and running support groups.

Wong hopes more neighbourhood units, such as the owners committees of housing estates, would recognise the importance of organic, support networks and work with organisations that could help set up such mechanisms in the community.

"Institutional help is only one type of help," Wong says. "We wish there could be supportive local communities that work side by side with institutions and professionals. No one should ever fear being rejected and ostracised because of the emotional burden they suffer."