Managing Disability During the Festive Season
by Justene Smith

While the festive season is meant to be a period of relaxation, when enjoying time with family and friends and celebrating the end of another year are high on the agenda, many people find it particularly stressful. 

Justene Smith, disability expert at Progression, says while dealing with the festive season can be stressful for the man-on-the-street, it can be life-threatening for persons with mental health disabilities.  “The festivities and the pressure and expectations that accompany Christmas and the holiday season can result in relapses and lead to elevated levels of stress, which can have serious repercussions,” says Smith.

Smith provides a few tips to help persons with mental disabilities cope better in December and January.

Planning is key

Smith says planning for the holidays is the first and most important step to ensure mental health during the festive season. Smith explains, “As part of their workplace wellness programmes, companies should encourage staff to start planning for their holidays, particularly in terms of medication management.”

This is especially important for the many South Africans who visit their families in rural areas where medication is not always readily available. “Running out of medication can be dangerous, leading to a relapse or becoming life-threatening for people with diabetes or other disabilities.  It is critical to get a script from a doctor or psychiatrist that covers persons with disabilities for the time they will be away,” adds Smith.

Cultural challenges

South Africa’s status as “The Rainbow Nation” means it is home to people from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. This can present challenges when it comes to understanding and accepting people with disabilities, especially people with mental disabilities.

“Many people find themselves subjected to cultural pressures when they return to their communities during the festive season. These may include being put under pressure to get married or have children. In addition, many people who work in the cities are the main breadwinners and expected to fund holiday season festivities,” adds Smith.

Having large gatherings over the holiday season makes it difficult for people to take time out for themselves, especially if they are feeling anxious or overwhelmed. It is important for persons with mental disabilities to communicate this to their families so that they are afforded the opportunity to take time out when they need it.

Smith says balancing western medication and diagnoses with cultural beliefs in South Africa can be a challenge. “Some communities believe that people who, for example, hear voices are gifted and able to communicate with the ancestors. A condition such as schizophrenia is not considered a serious medical condition that needs medical intervention. This can cause an enormous amount of tension for the person who has the mental disability, but is discouraged from taking medication by community members. My advice  to them is to stick to their guns, educate their families and communities about the condition and insist on following their normal routines,” continues Smith.

Avoid alcohol

Smith says people on medication need to consult their psychiatrists or doctors before drinking alcohol. Smith explains, “Consuming alcohol while on anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and other medication is strongly discouraged as it can interfere with the efficacy of the medication.”

“It is important to read the pamphlet that accompanies the medication. It will provide valuable information on the substances that should be avoided while on the medication. Many government hospitals issue medication in small plastic packets that do not contain a pamphlet. In these cases, a quick check on the internet to check dosage, side effects and contraindications is advisable,” suggests Smith.

In addition, most alcoholic beverages are high in sugar. People who have diabetes are encouraged to refrain from alcohol to avoid dangerous spikes in their sugar levels.

“Ultimately, remaining stable and in good health this festive season is all about managing medication, maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle and getting the support of family and friends. In this way, persons with mental disabilities can relax and enjoy themselves just as much as the next person,” concludes Smith.

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