When the Chinese New Year arrives in a few days’ time, many people will be hosting or visiting families and friends to wish them good tidings.

It is a happy time for many people. Family gatherings can generate feelings of warmth and happiness and are a source of memories for the family, said Ms Leow Lilyn, a principal clinical psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health.

“It’s a family tradition, something that everyone in the family can look forward to every year.”

It is especially important to keep up such traditions if you have children.

She said: “Memories of strong family bonds have been found to create resilience in kids.”

Children in a loving family feel more secure and can better manage stress. And even weak family ties are better than none at all.

Dr Chua Siew Eng, a specialist in psychiatry and consultant at Raffles Counselling Centre, said: “Weak ties are still ties. So long as one derives pleasure or meaning from such interaction, no matter how infrequent it is, it can still contribute to happiness. And perhaps, one day, the ties might even be strengthened.”

By creating the opportunity for sharing, stimulation and activity, social interaction can provide a sense of belonging and purpose, which is beneficial for mental and physical health, she said.

LONELINESS AND MONEY WOES

The opposite is true for someone without social support.

Loneliness or social isolation has been shown to increase the risk of illnesses, such as depression and dementia, said Dr Chua.

If you have lost someone or are estranged from family, or have loved ones who are far away, the festive season might seem more stressful than an average day.

It heightens or exposes the sense of loneliness and reminds people of what they do not have, said Dr Tan Hwee Sim,who is also a specialist in psychiatry and consultant at Raffles Counselling Centre.

“People who feel they don’t fit in with the festive joy may become depressed.”

People with mental conditions such as depression and psychosis mayalso be affected, she said.

At the Singapore Association for Mental Health, some clients do become more noticeably stressed during festive periods, said its executive director,Ms Tan Li Li.

Even the thought of spring cleaning or meeting relatives who they see only once a year and fielding uncomfortable questions can lead to holiday blues, she said.

Indeed, at every Chinese New Year, there are a few patients with depression who ask to be admitted to hospital, said Dr Victor Kwok, head of the psychiatry department at Sengkang Health.

One patient with depression had a relapse over the Chinese New Year period because she was reminded of her late mother.

Another vulnerable group of people are those in financial difficulties.

Studies have shown that money worries are associated with a higher rate of almost all types of mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorder, as well as harmful drinking and alcohol dependence, Dr Kwok said.

Money worries are also associated with poor health and excess body weight, which could be due to less exercise, poor food choices or overeating.

Money woes are compounded during Chinese New Year because of what one thinks that relatives may expect in the hongbao, he said.

Such people might also start comparing the size of the house they visit and model of the car, as well as the clothes that others wear or the restaurant where the reunion dinner is held.

“Furthermore, such topics tend to be discussed in the presence of friends and relatives, and the potential loss of face can give rise to anxiety,” said Dr Kwok.

Symptoms of depression include tiredness, poor appetite, lack of concentration, insomnia and a feeling of worthlessness that can last for at least two weeks and might affect the person’s work. Those who fit the description should seek help, said doctors.

Although spontaneous recovery is possible for mild depression, the average duration of depression can be around eight months, if left untreated, said Dr Tan.

“Those whose depressive illness is untreated do not always recover eventually. In some cases, the symptoms may get considerably worse, with the risk of suicide,” she said.

Untreated depression increases the risk of behaviours such as gambling, alcohol or drug addiction, causing problems at school or at work, and ruining relationships – all stressors that perpetuate the illness, she added.

But it does not mean that people without close family members cannot enjoy the festive season. The key is to have close reciprocal relationships.

“Family relationships are not the only ties we have. There’s the family you are born with and the family you create. The key is to have authentic ties,” said Ms Leow.

“You can be involved in another community and create rituals of your own,” she added.

“It is not about the number of friends and family you have but about the quality of the relationships you have with them.

“If you have authentic relationships, they do keep you happier.”

Helplines

  • Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Helpline (24 hours)
    Call 6389-2222
  • Samaritans of Singapore
    (24 hours) Call 1800-221-4444
  • Singapore Association for Mental Health
    Call 1800-283-7019
  • Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin)
    Call 1800-353-5800