The holiday season, often seen as a time for joy and connection, can bring unique challenges for our LGBTIQ+ communities.

We spoke with Joe Ball from Switchboard Victoria and Venetia Brissenden from Thorne Harbour Health about how people can manage their mental health and substance use during the holidays, especially when facing potentially confrontational family situations.

Returning to one’s family of origin can be a poignant experience, filled with the anticipation of reuniting with family. For LGBTIQ+ folk facing non-acceptance though, it can be isolating and stressful.

“The funny thing about this time of year is we do things that we do only once a year, and so we often pick up where we left off,” Joe says.

“If that place we left off was discrimination, rejection, maybe even violence, then you’re returning to that place.”

The pressure is particularly high for trans and gender-diverse people who may face questions about their appearance during this time of heightened expectations.

Staying connected to chosen family becomes crucial during the holidays. Joe said it’s important to set boundaries and give yourself space when you need.

Joe says asking yourself questions like these could help you plan ahead:

– What can I do if family members aren’t affirming of my identity?
– Am I going to be able to just drive away and do my own thing?
– Do I have friends in the local area I’m going to be able to catch up with?
– If I don’t have a car, what are the public transport options?

He encourages people to remember you can always walk away from uncomfortable and dangerous situations.

“Give yourself permission to do things, and then once you’re outside, you can take some deep breaths and take stock and just be like, ‘okay, how am I doing now that I’m not in that fiery moment?’”

For those in need of immediate support, Qlife is a national service that offers phone and webchat support every day.

Venetia Brissenden brings additional insight into managing alcohol and other drug use during the holidays. She outlines warning signs that substance use may be escalating, such as changes in consumption levels, increased spending, and the development of withdrawal symptoms.

“You might have developed some tolerance for a drug. You might have become really reliant on what the drug does for you. There’s some stuff there that maybe needs to be worked through and, yeah, it might be time to talk to somebody about that,” says Venetia.

In terms of self-management, Venetia recommends the use of a drug and/or alcohol diary. It can help track substance use patterns, identifying triggers, stressors, and potential interventions. Gathering information like this can allow for informed decision-making and could empower people to take control of their usage.

“If you notice that you’re having a drink seven days a week, you might go, ‘okay, I might choose to only have a drink five days a week.’ Different methods will work differently for different people,” she says.

“Some people are cold turkey people and other people are gradual reduction people. You know, it really depends.”

If you’re worried to see friends or family members struggling with alcohol or drug use over the holiday period, Venetia suggests approaching conversations about friends or family members’ substance use with curiosity rather than judgment. It might be worth having this conversation in private too.

“You might want to share with them what you’ve noticed. And you might want to say this if there’s been an impact on you.”

“You might say, ‘do you think it’s worth checking in with a professional about this?’ I think if it’s seriously impacting you in your relationship with this person, then you can seek support as well. Most drug and alcohol services will be open to you using that service yourself,” says Venetia.

Expressing genuine concern and offering support without condemnation can help foster a safe space for open communication. Acknowledging observed changes in behaviour and their impacts, while maintaining a non-judgmental stance, can also promote a supportive environment for anyone who may need help.

As the holiday season unfolds, addressing mental health and substance use issues requires open communication, self-reflection, and, when necessary, seeking support from professionals. This holiday season, let’s prioritise the wellbeing of our LGBTIQ+ communities by fostering understanding, empathy, and resilience in both mental health and substance use management.

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