Re-casting our view of the holidays for better health

Re-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.ornament msoffice

The holidays are here! Time for parties, shopping, gifts, amazing food, fun entertainment and kisses under the mistletoe!

Or….spilled drinks, carpet stains, poor sleep, cranky children, arguing spouses, overtime hours, meddling family members, heavy traffic, bad directions, late arrivals, ingratitude and over-spending.

With each holiday season, we often have an image about what we would like it to be. We tend to dream and plan for the best possible scenario, and tend to be influenced heavily by images we see in advertisements. We see warmth and beauty, togetherness and cheer, and sometimes begin to feel that we need to re-create those scenes in our own lives in order to be happy. Of course we may know those images in the media are misleading, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t influenced.

Furthermore, we are influenced by our own family customs and how we have celebrated in the past. While we may have many good memories, circumstances often change that make it difficult to reproduce all the pleasant emotions of previous years. Perhaps cherished family members are unable to be part of the annual gathering. Maybe you have recently moved, changed jobs or lost a partner. These things can be significant sources of stress in life and can affect your view of the holidays. You may not even feel like celebrating.

You can prevent a holiday let-down by approaching the holidays with a sensible plan. You can get yourself into trouble emotionally when you become attached to one view of the holidays, or form an unrealistic expectation about them. While you may have participated in the same activities for the last ten years, it’s possible that this you are not feeling up to it. If you are grieving or simply stressed out from certain challenges in your life, it’s perfectly reasonable to need something different—and you can give yourself permission to pursue what you need without guilt or regret.

Since pressure at this time of year can vary from person to person, assess what you need to stay emotionally healthy. Adapt traditions and favorite customs to fit your current needs whether that means serving foods that are easier to prepare, going away rather than staying home, or spending less money on gifts. Give yourself permission to relax and enjoy being with people you care about. Rather than wishing for more, regretting what is not there, or feeling bad about thing beings “different”, take a moment to appreciate the good things around you.

This is especially important to remember for those who have recently experienced a personal loss, whether through a break-up, divorce or death. Those individuals may wish to avoid familiar activities because they are painful reminders of the past, or they might appreciate a quite cup of coffee and pleasant conversation rather than a loud, festive gathering.

As you re-imagine your vision of what a “happy holiday” is, spend a moment to picture yourself in those alternative situations. Of course, you can expect people to notice that you are not celebrating the same way. Prepare close friends and family ahead of time by letting them know why you are making the changes and how they can support you. For example, inform them you don’t feel comfortable attending a certain gathering or that you will attend but may excuse yourself early. Also, picture the potential highs as well as the lows: what will be nice about the new way of celebrating and what might be difficult? How will you respond to questions?

As you take care of yourself this holiday and approach the celebrations on your own terms, you may find peace, joy and comfort in ways you never imagined. By removing the pressure to experience the holiday in a certain way, or as you always have, you are more likely to enjoy the moments that present themselves. You are now free to appreciate the new experiences and the caring people around you! You may even inspire others to follow your lead and re-imagine for themselves the “perfect” image of the holidays.


Note: This article was first published for Greater Niagara Newspapers (Lockport Union-Sun Journal, Niagara Gazette and Tonawanda News) on December 21, 2014.

Pamela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.

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Long-time Staffer Sees Big Challenges in Mental Health Field

By Betty Intihar, Front Office Assistant at the Mental Health Association in Niagara CountyImage

Hello, my name is Betty Intihar and I have been an employee of the MHA for 28 years. The Compeer Niagara program had just begun in Niagara County and I was the first person hired. Now I work at the front desk of our office on 36 Pine Street, Lockport, answering calls and helping anyone who comes by. If you call our Help Line, you may just get me!

Over the years, I have seen many good things happen in the mental health field: positive, new medications; more advocacy for mental health services; more peer-led support groups; better hospital advocates; and many new programs that enrich the lives of our clients. I have even seen some promising models for mental health services, such as the clubhouse model. A clubhouse would offer consumers a safe place to be with friends and enjoy some coffee and conversation. Sadly, that approach ended several years ago and no real replacement has been found. But we try to do what we can through our Help Line, and will often spend a few minutes talking to someone who just needs a friendly voice.

Many other challenges remain. With state money drying up, many mental health programs have had to close, let go valued workers, or offer fewer services.  Many organizations now operate with fewer social workers, and those that remain must handle a larger client load. Also, hospital mental health units for adults and children are being closed, leaving families in Niagara County with limited options.

There are also challenges in the areas of housing and transportation. In housing, I have found that there are many landlords who take advantage of clients. Affordable, safe housing is a rare find, and often what is available is old and unsafe.  As for transportation, that has remained a problem for all the years I have been in this field. For example, limited bus schedules between Lockport and Niagara Falls can mean traveling all morning for a 30-minute afternoon appointment. This kind of time commitment can require missing an entire day of work, and that just doesn’t seem fair.

The MHA is now entering its 50th year and I am proud to say I have been here for about two-thirds of it! I have enjoyed my work and the staff I have worked with over the years. The work we do for our clients and families is very important, and the dedication from our staff is outstanding. If you have never utilized any of our services, which include a wonderful resource library and free informational brochures, I invite you to come visit us. Most people don’t know who we are until they need us. Why not see what we have to offer? We are here for you!  ◊

Child’s Diagnosis Leads to Joining Mental Health Association Board

Rebecca Wydysh

Rebecca Wydysh

By Rebecca Wydysh, President of the Board of Directors at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County.

People often ask me why I decided to join the MHA Board of Directors.  I don’t work in the mental health field, or any medical field, for that matter. My interest is much more personal and first hand…

In 2008, my daughter was your average third grader.  She had lots of friends, received great grades and all her teachers said she was “a pleasure to have in class”.  Virtually out of nowhere, things changed. She started adamantly and ferociously refusing to go to school, with no real reason or explanation.  She simply DID NOT and WOULD NOT go!   And there was no making her…she would act out emotionally and physically, to the point it would have been dangerous for her (and me), if forced.

While the school staff was extremely supportive, and tried to help in any way they could, it was clear there was no real program in place to help us.  We were given several suggestions and even ended up staying overnight at a hospital emergency wing, where we were ultimately told “good luck” and released.  We spent several frustrating days contacting our own doctors, insurance company, friends and family, just trying to get her the immediate help she needed.  Many counselors had a wait of several weeks or a month just to get a first appointment.  We felt alone and useless to help our daughter.

After several months of counseling attempts, a diagnosis of “Generalized Anxiety and School Refusal”, in-patient treatment, and home schooling, she was finally able to return to class.  Most of this might have been avoided if we had just had a better support system and treatment plan from the start. It was a difficult few years of ups and downs, but I’m happy to say that she has grown so much (in age and wisdom) and now has very little trouble going to school every day.

During our journey, I saw just how frustrating it can be to navigate the mental health system, especially where children are concerned, and I wish I had known more about the MHA and the programs we offer.  I had just started my position as Deputy Commissioner of Jurors in Niagara County with the New York State Unified Court System and was lucky to have very supportive employers and co-workers.  I cannot imagine how much more difficult, or even impossible, it would be for a parent dealing with their own mental health diagnosis during that type of crisis.

It was shortly after this experience, in 2009, that I was invited to join the Board of Directors.   I joined without hesitation, in the hope of helping in any way that I can, big or small, to support other children in our community to receive the care they need, while also supporting the parents that love them. 

I am honored to be the current Board President at MHA in Niagara Counyt, and will do all I can to raise awareness for the organization and further the crucial programs our staff works so hard every day to develop and expand.  ◊

Visit www.mhanc.com to learn more

Step Up So Others Don’t Get Stepped On

Contributor: DOUG LUKE, MHA Board Member
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Every day thousands of children wake up and are afraid to go to school. Not because they haven’t completed their homework, nor are they nervous to take a test, but because they are fearful of bullying.

Bullying has become one of the leading concerns within schools in Niagara County. Bullying can lead to poor grades, school violence and teen suicide.

Bullying occurs when a person is picked on repeatedly by an individual or group perceived with more power; either in terms of physical strength or social status. It is the on-going harassment from one peer to another resulting in mental, physical and/or psychological pain. Bullying can be physical or verbal. Boys tend to use more physical elements when bullying and girls tend to be more verbal. Bullying can occur anywhere; on the bus, in the neighborhood, before or after school, in the cafeteria or hallway, or on a computer (Cyber bullying).

Bullying can range from hitting, shoving, name-calling, and threats to mocking others. It also can involve extorting money and prized possessions. Some kids bully by shunning others and spreading rumors about them.

Bullies choose their victims for two main reasons – appearance and social status. Bullies pick on the people they think don’t fit in, maybe because of how they look, how they act, their race or religion, their size, or their sexual orientation.

Kids bully for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they pick on kids because they need a victim — someone who seems emotionally or physically weaker, or just acts or appears different in some way — to feel more important, popular, or in control. Although some bullies are bigger or stronger than their victims, this is not always the case.

A bully likes attention and appears confident with high self esteem, when actually they are most likely extremely insecure. They may be physically aggressive, pro-violence, easily angered and impulsive. A bully likes to dominate and have power over people. Bullies are more likely to dislike others, perform poorly academically, instigate fights, and are more prone to be problematic in school.

A recent study showed that boys who are school bullies in grades six through nine had at least one criminal conviction by age 24.

Anyone can be a victim of bullying. As a parent or educator, there are warning signs to look for:

  • Sudden downward change in a child’s school performance
  • A sudden change in friendship groups
  • School absenteeism
  • The loss of school or personal items (more so than normal)
  • Unexplained bruises or torn clothing that occurs during school hours

If you suspect a child is a victim of bullying, it’s important to maintain open lines of communication and contact school officials.

It may be tempting to tell the child to fight back; however, it’s important to advise children not to respond to bullying by fighting or bullying back. This improper form of retaliation can quickly escalate into violence, trouble, and someone getting hurt. Instead, it’s best to walk away from the situation, hang out with others, and tell an adult.

Encourage children to:

  • Try to always avoid the bully and use the “buddy” system.
  • Control his/her anger – walk away from the presence of a bully.
  • Tell an adult, albeit a parent, teacher or school administrator.
  • Share openly with others. Tell someone you trust, such as a counselor, teacher, parent, or friend.

Strong partnerships between schools, the Mental Health Association of Niagara County, and parents are the key to stopping bullying. Together we must STEP UP SO OTHERS DON’T GET STEPPED ON.