Blue and Broke for the Holidays

MONDAY, Dec. 22 (HealthDay News) --Sagging spirits, sagging economy.

That's the holidays this year, with many people both blue and broke -- the usual melancholy compounded by the highest jobless rate in three decades and a jackknifing stock market.

"Mental health problems are common and spike more often during the winter months not only because of the holidays, but also because of seasonal affective disorder," said Dr. Timothy Fong, assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Impulse Control Disorders Clinic. "This year, more than anything else, financial stressors are bringing that out."

Add to that a hefty dose of "spending guilt" among those who can't afford to buy the usual full stockings of holiday gifts and those who are spending but feeling bad about it.

"People talk about feeling guilty about spending," said Jerry Gold, administrative director of behavioral health services at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego. "Financial stress is one of the top 10 factors for relationship problems anyway. If people tend to spend more than they bring in and have guilt about it, coupled with the fact that there's a global financial crisis and also the holiday times in which people are pressured to purchase gifts as an expression of caring or love, all that together probably exacerbates underlying stress about finances."

Over the past three to four months, Fong said, he has been seeing more patients with stress, depression and anxiety, people who normally would not have sought out treatment. Others who once paid cash for counseling just can't afford to pay anymore, especially with going rates in the Los Angeles area ranging from $125 to $400 and up.

And insurers are tightening up regulations. One patient who spent four days in the hospital recently detoxing from prescription drugs found himself with an unanticipated $8,000 bill for the stay. "His holidays are ruined," Fong said.

Companies still in business are devising their own strategies. According to Gary Bagley, executive director of New York Cares, a volunteer-oriented charitable organization in New York City, the number of corporate holiday parties is down, with companies organizing their employees to volunteer instead.

"I wouldn't say [volunteering for the holidays] is unheard of in the past, but this year, we're also having folks say they're volunteering instead of the holiday party and making it very clear it would have been a holiday party but, considering the times, it doesn't feel right to be throwing a party," Bagley said.

That, of course, is for people who have jobs. But whether you have a job, a half-job or no job, there are ways to survive the holidays, both mentally and financially:

  • Maintain your mental health. It's as important as your physical health, Fong said. Make sure you get seven hours of sleep a night, exercise, eat three square meals a day, avoid junk food and limit yourself to two alcoholic drinks a night if you're a man, one if you're a woman. Avoid pot, heroin, cocaine and mama's pills.
  • Combine social activities with exercise. Become part of a running club or hiking club, for instance. Many such clubs and activities don't cost much, if anything.
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