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Interview: Christian Psychiatrist on Why Holidays Are Rough for Depressed People; Forgiveness and Mental Health

By Dr. Karl Benzio (Christian Psychiatrist)
Depression affects nearly 14.8 million people in the United States. Karl Benzio, founder of the addiction and mental health counseling helpline the Lighthouse Network, said depression and loneliness can be heightened during the holiday season.

“It’s a lot easier for us to remember and connect those past traumas to significant events like holidays or a birthday or anniversary,” said the Christian psychiatrist. Those traumatic connections are especially common during the winter season, Benzio said, because “since there are a bunch of holidays that occur in a row, it’s very easy to attach those traumatic experience to holiday experiences, giving us a heightened alert system or defense system as those holiday come around the corner.”

Benzio believes those prone to loneliness, isolation, depression or anger during this time of year can benefit from a range of therapies from talk therapy to medication. His non-profit Lighthouse Network links individuals struggling with addictions or psychological and emotional problems to counseling, rehabilitation centers, and psychiatric care facilities. However he also believes in the power of God’s word and the impact Christian principles such as forgiveness can have on the hurting.

In this edited interview with The Christian Post, Benzio explains why the holiday season is so challenging for some and why forgiveness is the ultimate secret to health wellness.

Christian Post: Why are the holidays a particularly challenging time of year for the depressed and lonely?

Karl Benzio: The holidays are this time of year that’s supposed to be about joy, peace, fulfillment, but especially about relationship and spiritual connection. You know that perfect Hallmark card or Lifetime movie. So whenever there’s this huge expectation and it’s out there in front of everybody in the media and you see some functional healthy families enjoying this time of year, it really accentuates the loss or the things that are missing or those hurts that you know many people are experiencing this time of year. So they’re hurting during the rest of the year but this year the emphasis is so much on these elements and this joyousness and this peace, whenever it’s not there for somebody it’s almost like rubbing salt in their wounds.

CP: Who are most susceptible to feeling lonely or depressed during the holidays?

Benzio: There are usually two groups of people: One that has had a recent loss so whether that’s their spouse has passed away, maybe a child is estranged from them, obviously a divorce is a very common issue in our society so whether it’s a child that lost a parent because of divorce or two spouses that are now separated and one felt …that was not their choice to be separated or divorced but that was sort of forced upon them. So you have people who have had immediate losses or significant disruptions to their relational life. Then you have people who have had hurts from the past.

So oftentimes holidays are this very joyous time for us, but for many people, the holidays are also a very troubling time. So whether it’s been from addictions, whether it’s been from just dysfunction in the family, abuse, you know many traumas that occur, nobody has that perfect childhood some have certainly a more disruptive childhood than others. Oftentimes those situations come out to play a lot more at the holidays just because of the significant, as we talked about, the expectations of what the holiday is.

CP: You say that some feel a type of pressure being around family members and loved one during the holidays. Explain what you mean by this.

Benzio: Someone who’s feeling crappy about themselves – feels insecure, feels inadequate or feels like they’re a failure, life isn’t working out for them – most people’s natural tendencies is to isolate. [They] don’t want to be around other people, don’t want to see the victories or the well being of others because that sort of shows how dysfunctional and how chaotic or what a failure [they are].

So there’s sort of that isolation process and the holidays is about engaging, about relationship, about community whether that’s the block party getting together, whether that’s family members, extended family, an office party – it’s community and relationship so there’s that nervousness about just being opposite of what your natural tendency is, then mix into that situation people are probably going to ask you about if there’s been … a recent divorce or an issue or loss of a job or substance use or conflicts with a child, people are going ask well how is that going, how’s that doing. So these people that you’ve been connected to, they’re interested in you, they want to help you maybe or they’re curious at least so they’re going to ask you those questions so now you have to talk about those hurts, those wounds, those inadequacies, those insecurities. The last thing most people want to do during that joyous time of year is 1. go out, then 2. have to talk about what you’re struggling with or what you’re failing in.

CP: What particular actions/treatments do you recommend for the lonely and depressed during this time year?

Benzio: If this is something that … your daily functioning is being impacted – a person is really struggling with some daily activities or its really intruding on their daily concentration and enjoyment of life – it’s really good to see a professional. Ideally that would be a physiatrist who could also evaluate if there are any other medical conditions going on – is there an anemia, low blood count, is there a thyroid problem, is there a menstrual issue, you know what are some of those physical issues that need to be ruled out that could be causing some of these difficulties that could be easily addressed and treated. That would be the first thing to do.

Then as far as they say yes, well it is something physiological that’s going on, then there’s a couple different treatment options, for that one is the classical talk therapy about connecting with the professional therapist who can help you understand what’s going on with your thought patterns, your emotional management, your relationship skills and work on correcting it and improving those skill so that you can enjoy and be fulfilled with things in your life. Obviously going to a Christian therapist that can bring in God’s power and bring in those biblical principles that the Bible teaches us about how to forgive, how to relate, how to manage conflict, how to look to God in times of trouble are important in that treatment process.

Sometimes medications are real helpful so when a person is really struggling and those emotions are at a high amplitude, psychiatric medications don’t cure anything but they do help with some of those symptoms like we discussed: depression or loneliness or anxiety and it’s hard to manage life when all those symptoms are overflowing so psychiatric medications can help reduce the amplitude of the impact to those emotions so that somebody can work with a therapist or they can start to see their own situation more clearly and use the skills they inherently have.

Those are some professional elements. As far as things that someone can do just in and of themselves, just really having that devotional time, you know, connecting to God and having a bigger picture of you. Usually whenever we connect with God, we now have a bigger view of the situation rather than our micro me-centered view of the situation.

CP: You also mentioned that committing to forgiveness and letting go of past hurts can go a long way towards heath wellness. Explain that.

Benzio: Forgiveness is huge. Forgiveness has so many ramifications even just on our body physically. The more we understand about heart disease, we understand that pent up resentment and anger lead to a lot of the heart problems, the heart attacks and high pressure that we have. So forgiveness is impactful physically, it’s incredible impactful psychologically. It helps with addiction care, it helps with depression and anxiety and anger. It obviously help with relational improvement but it also helps spiritually in our connection with God and understanding His forgiveness for us and being able to communicate that forgiveness with others.

Now unfortunately there’s a lot myths about forgiveness. So a lot of times we think if we forgive we have to reconcile with that person or if we forgive we act as if nothing ever happened, like there was no transgression or we can trust that person 100 percent now or we have to forget what happened, and those are all myths about forgiveness. That’s not what biblical forgiveness is. So we’ve all been hurt and as we’ve discussed earlier, a lot of those hurts get magnified during this holiday season and if we don’t resolved them they’re going to continue to fester and eat away and contaminate many areas of our life. Forgiveness is this big coping mechanism that God has given us to release us from some of that hurt.

CP: How can family members, friends and or church members help those feeling lonely or depressed feel at ease this season?

Benzio: We’re made to be in community. Community is so powerful and impactful so you obviously want to pray for the person if they’ve experienced some hurt or some wounds or we notice that they just have trouble during that time of year. We might not know what their past history was but we see a discomfort in them so let’s just pray for them. Stop and pray and lift them up that God’s peace and encouragement and power would be evident during this especially spiritual time of year for them.

Second would be [learn] how to just invite them over, how to invite them out after church, how to invite them to lunch. If you see someone you know is going home to a sort of cold, lonely house, invite them over for some apple pie, for a cup of tea, to watch the ball game, to “hey if you got presents to wrap, why don’t you come over. We’ve got a lot of wrapping paper and we can wrap presents together.” You know, something to engage in [and] depending on the level of relationship that you have with them, how to be able to communicate, “hey, I love you, I care for you, I know you’re having some troubles and some struggles this time of year. I’m here for you to talk to. I don’t what to intrude on your situation and make it uncomfortable for you but I know sometimes it’s really good to talk about these things or to get another perspective about them or help you with how do you manage if you’re going to your relatives’ house that you’ve had some discord. Or another cousin’s going to be there that you’ve had an issue with. Let’s practice some of those things that you can do. Let’s walk through some of those steps. I’m here for you to do that with.”

If you really notice them struggling, [learn] how to encourage that person to seek out some professional counseling whether that’s with your Sunday school teacher, with your pastor, with a counselor in the church or with some other professional in the community that can (give) some professional coaching.

Lighthouse Network offers a toll-free, 24-hour helpline at 1-844-LIFE-CHANGE (1-844-543-3242) for those struggling with feelings of loneliness, depression, anger, resentment, bitterness and unforgiveness as well as online resources to understand and recognize addiction behavior. www.lighthousenetwork.org.

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