Sticking to treatment key to managing holiday stressors

Published 3:16 pm Tuesday, December 24, 2019

By Diana McFarland


The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas can be hectic, but for those with a mental illness diagnosis, the season can add another dimension of stress for both the person and his or her family. 

About 24 percent of those with a diagnosed mental illness find that the holidays make their condition “a lot” worse and 40 percent “somewhat” worse, according to a survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

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Maye and Phil Jepson of Smithfield know this all too well. Their son, Jason, 39, was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2003 while he was serving in the Army.

“It was a very confusing time for us,” said Maye. 

The hardest part was finding a treatment plan that worked, and initially Jason was on an oral medication. That was problematic because sometimes he would forget to take his medicine, or take an extra dose because he forgot he took it earlier in the day, said Maye. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

There was also a good deal of trial and error, and sometimes Jason’s symptoms would reappear and he would relapse, said Maye. 

Add the holidays, with its heightened expectations, and a case of the “holiday blues,” can strike, according to NAMI.

It’s also a time when routines are disrupted, there may be travel and more interactions with family — that can all add stress to those with a mental health diagnosis, said Maye. 

Jason’s birthday is also days away from Christmas — another reason to hold firm to their normal routine.

Maye said Jason was on the oral meds for 10 years, and it wasn’t until a third hospitalization that the doctor recommended a medication that needed to be injected just once a month. 

“That made all the difference in the world,” said Maye. 

No longer would Jason forget to take his medication, and Maye said she and her husband no longer had to nag him about taking it every day.

As the holidays approached this year, Maye didn’t have to worry about Jason skipping his medication and symptoms resurfacing as the stress increased.  

“Now we can begin to enjoy and focus on other things, such as being with family and activities,” said Maye.

In addition to his monthly injections, Jason also sees a psychiatrist, and the family has accommodated Jason’s need for a quiet place to retreat and play his music. He is also careful to keep up an exercise and nutrition regime.  

 “You try not to let the holidays interfere with those things, said Maye. 

Maye credits Jason’s treatment plan, and his diligence in staying on it, with him having gained control over his condition. The family has come to think of his diagnosis as no different from a physical problem, be it heart disease or diabetes. For that reason, the Jepsons are not shy about telling Jason’s story. 

Jason is a full-time volunteer and advocate for mental illness. He writes first-person accounts of his experiences for medical journals that help doctors understand his condition.

“That’s given him a lot of purpose in his life,” said Maye. 

Maye is a volunteer with the SHARE network, a Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. program made up of people who are dedicated to inspiring others through their own personal stories.  

As a result, Maye has met many people who have their own stories to share, and has learned that mental illness is not uncommon. 

Maye believes the openness has been a key part of her son’s recovery. 

Today, Jason can experience symptoms and can judge for himself whether he needs to act or ignore them, said Maye. When they are at a family gathering, there isn’t anyone there who doesn’t already know his situation and admire him for what he’s gone through.

“We don’t have to keep it a secret. That has been so important,” said Maye. 

For more information on mental health and the holidays, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness website at To reach the NAMI hotline, call 1-800-950-NAMI.

What is schizoaffective disorder?

Schizoaffective disorder is a chronic mental health condition characterized primarily by symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions, and symptoms of a mood disorder, such as mania and depression.

Many people with schizoaffective disorder are often incorrectly diagnosed at first with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Because schizoaffective disorder is less well-studied than the other two conditions, many interventions are borrowed from their treatment approaches. 

Schizoaffective is relatively rare, with a lifetime prevalence of only 0.3%. Men and women experience schizoaffective disorder at the same rate, but men often develop the illness at an earlier age. Schizoaffective disorder can be managed effectively with medication and therapy. 

Information courtesy of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.