OMA Spotlight on Health

Mental Health and the Holidays with Dr. Javeed Sukhera

December 17, 2020 Ontario Medical Association Season 1 Episode 34
OMA Spotlight on Health
Mental Health and the Holidays with Dr. Javeed Sukhera
Show Notes Transcript

The holidays can be a difficult time for many families, but this year will be especially hard with the COVID-19 pandemic. Listen as Dr. Javeed Sukhera, a Psychiatrist specializing in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, offers advice to families on how to cope and protect their mental health. 

OMA Podcast Episode 34 - Mental Health and the Holidays with Dr. Javeed Sukhera

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Voice-over: In this podcast the Ontario Medical Association looks at current health issues that are on everyone’s mind. Spotlight on Health gives you the straight talk. We’re Ontario’s doctors and your health matters to us.

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Anne Marie Flanagan: I’m Anne Marie Flanagan. I’m the Director of Media Relations and Social Media at the Ontario Medical Association.

Dr. Javeed Sukhera: Hi, I'm Javeed Sukhera. I'm a child and adolescent psychiatrist in London, Ontario. I'm an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Western University, and I have a clinical practice at London Health Sciences Centre.

Flanagan: And we're here today to talk about mental health.

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Flanagan: We know that holidays can be stressful for people in general—family get-togethers and that sort of thing—and then, this year, it adds even more complexity because there's the advice not to get together. What sort of tips would you give for families to help them navigate some of the stresses of this time?

Dr. Sukhera: It's funny, you're exactly right. For many people, not getting together with their families is actually the greatest thing ever. I think everybody's unique and everybody's individual.

Some of us deal with stress by going above and beyond, and some of us shut down and try to hibernate. Everybody's different, and everybody's going to cope in a different way. The loss of the ability to gather with loved ones, friends and family, is a huge loss for most of us. And that's not something that we can take without appreciating and grieving that loss.

We need to name it, we need to recognize it, and be kind to ourselves that it sucks. Rather than just trying to kind of fall into a trap of what I call "toxic positivity," or trying to silver-lining everything. Sometimes things suck and we just need to name it.

If there are differing perspectives within a family, then I think we need to respect that what works for one might not work for others, but together to discuss openly what that line is.

There's been a lot of confusing public health messaging—I think we can recognize—and it's uncertain, and it's unusual.

We have to remember we're all human, and that there are some very important rules that exist for the protection of the health of us and the ones we love. But we are the ones who really end up getting to decide what we're going to do within those restrictions, and how we can still achieve a sense of connection, whether it's a porch visit, or a video call, dropping off meals.

You know, there's some amazing ways that we can still create and foster that sense of connection. I was reading somewhere that Christmas products are actually selling way more this year, and I think that does reflect that we are built to celebrate and connect. And this year might be a great example of holidays that are about the time we get to spend with those closest to us, and a time that we can appreciate is a reminder for what we hope next year might be like and what we'll remember we lived through, in the future.

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Flanagan: Sometimes we see people approaching other people's choices with a lot of judgment. Is there a way that you'd recommend that families deal with that internally, and a way to help themselves remember to be kind to each other and reserve that judgment a little bit?

Dr. Sukhera: I think about young people who might be struggling with things like OCD or anxiety, where they have a much harder time reconciling that other people might draw lines that are different from their own. So, I think it's really important to emphasize a need to be more flexible in our thinking, but also really practice putting ourselves in the shoes of the other person. And, what that takes is taking a step back from emotionally charged situations, and having these discussions at times that our brain is more flexible and open to having them.

It's usually not going to happen in the middle of an emotionally charged moment that we can see the other person's perspective, but if we take space and time and have a conversation, we can begin to recognize that each and every one of us might have a different perspective on things, and we might have different interpretations, judgments, or beliefs about things we wouldn't even know.

We're kind of built to avoid that though, right? So, we have to recognize that those hard, difficult conversations that help us expand our perspectives can be harder, because we're kind of built to avoid them. But by leaning into them, we can really enrich our own perspective.

We also don't have to agree on everything; that's really important. Being able to agree to disagree is an important component of healthy relationships. So, our effort shouldn't necessarily be to find a consensus or to find an agreement, but, again, be able to appreciate that a different member of the family is going to have a different perspective on things because they have different experiences that they bring, and a different lens in which they see the world. It's conversation and dialogue that helps us see that.

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Flanagan: I'm a firm believer that conflict, or what a lot of people consider to be conflict, can actually lead to greater understanding if you work through it and deal with it in a respectful way. How important is that for people?

Dr. Sukhera: I agree with you. I think—I call it "constructive tension"—tension should be constructive, because tension is what leads to growth. And I think that mindset is really essential, whether it's a parent, whether it's the elderly, whether it's a child. It's recognizing that we can't avoid growth, and it's through tension that we grow, and tension makes things richer.

In some of my own research and work, I kind of think that there's three main constructive tensions right now in this moment. One is what I alluded to, that tension between fixing things and feeling, sitting with and being present with emotions versus trying to fix them.

The other is seeing a situation in its parts with a narrow focus versus seeing it as a whole with a broader focus. Because of the moment that we're in right now, I think it requires us to step back and think more about the meaning of the moment, what it means—not just for us in our small worlds, but for others, particularly those who are struggling in ways that we can't even imagine.

The third constructive tension, and that can be a source of conflict, is the ways in which we treat ourselves versus the ways in which we treat others. I think a lot of us are genuinely trying to have as much compassion and kindness as we can for other people, but we tend not to have that compassion and kindness for ourselves. We tend to be very hard on ourselves, and it's being able to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes—and being kind to ourselves—that we can ultimately be the most compassionate version of ourselves with others as well.

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Flanagan: How does somebody know the difference between, they've just got a little bit of winter blahs, and maybe a seasonal affective disorder which would require some possible treatment?

Dr. Sukhera: The biggest test of how to make that differentiation has to do with our functioning. So, what we need to be asking ourselves is, can we meet our obligations and function to the average level of our ability or not?

We will not function to the highest level of our ability. So, that should not be our threshold. Winter is a tough time in general, and this winter is among the most toughest winters for, I think, our global community.

So, expecting to run at 10 out of 10 is just not realistic or appropriate. But some days, you can be at three out of 10 and keep your head above water and make it through, and that's okay, too. But when we get into situations where people are missing more work, falling significantly behind on important deadlines, and not really functioning to the level that they need to, that's when I think it falls into something that might require more intervention.

Within families, I think that speaks to complete shutdown and withdrawal. It's always okay to have a lazy day once in a while, that's not a problem, but if it's hard to get up in the morning for a couple of mornings, or days and days at a time are spent in bed doing nothing, that can also be problematic.

Some of the earliest things that people can do to address that are to have some structure and routine, to remind ourselves that even when our brains don't want to do stuff, we should be nudging one another to get out and do things. Not pushing, but nudging.

And simple things, when it comes to seasonal affective disorder, can actually be very, very big.

So, for example, sunlight. Because there's less sunlight, I encourage people to wake up earlier, to open their windows, and get as much sunlight early in the day as possible.

And the other is exercise. Ensuring that you have aerobic exercise that really generates some of the healthy neurotransmitters that are part of treating some of these challenges are a really important way to try to fight some of that pull that can lead us into becoming sadder and less functional.

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Voice-over: This podcast is brought to you by the Ontario Medical Association. It is produced and edited by Jodi Crawford Productions. This podcast is not intended to provide medical advice for specific situations and is for general educational purposes only. Please consult your doctor if you have symptoms or questions about your health.

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