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The Holidays Can Look Different for Veterans. Here’s How You Can Support Them

Fardous Hosseiny

President & CEO, Atlas Institute for Veterans and Families 

Laryssa Lamrock

National Strategic Advisor for Families, Atlas Institute for Veterans and Families 

Brian McKenna

National Strategic Advisor for Veterans, Atlas Institute for Veterans and Families 

Making one’s well-being a top priority is important during the holiday season, including for veterans and their families

Although it is often thought of as a time of great cheer, for many Canadians, the holidays might not be the happiest time of the year. This might be even more so for veterans, who as a result of their time in service, may experience psychological shifts during the holidays that could lead to feelings of sadness, low self-esteem, frustration, and even anger. 

According to the team at the Atlas Institute for Veterans and Families, it is important for those around veterans to not take these feelings personally and instead consider how a veteran’s time in service can influence their mental health. It’s important to honour their need for a safe space to make the holiday season more enjoyable for everyone. 

Holiday wellness

“Veterans and families are such a diverse group with unique needs and varying circumstances, says Fardous Hosseiny, Atlas President and CEO. “This is especially important to be cognizant of as we approach the holiday season  with its many competing demands.”

One-fifth of Canadian veterans are diagnosed with a mental health disorder at some point during their lives.* In turn, the mental well-being of a veteran’s family may also be affected — and it all can be compounded by holiday hustle and bustle. 

With the largest annual festive season around the corner, Atlas is bringing attention to the veteran and family community about the importance of taking care of themselves as well as highlighting ways the people around them can help. 

 “Things that may seem simple to others like holiday shopping may be overstimulating or even triggering for veterans,” says Laryssa Lamrock, National Strategic Advisor for Families at Atlas.

Suggested tactics

Laryssa explains that veterans may be impacted by additional feelings of burnout, heightened loneliness or isolation, anxiety, depression, or changes in family dynamics. “For my husband, December 25th is a day he experienced trauma while serving,” Laryssa adds. “Mental health issues don’t take a day off just because it’s Christmas, and we have had to adhere to that as a family unit.” 

It’s important that veteran families work together to adapt their holiday schedules accordingly, but also prioritize their own mental health. To best support veterans, every family member should care for themselves and express how they’re feeling, not only because it helps them better support the veterans in their lives, but also because their own needs are important.

Aside from being overwhelmed by holiday busyness, Atlas National Strategic Advisor for veterans Brian McKenna adds that, “It almost feels like forced fun sometimes.” A veteran himself, Brian refers to the timing of Remembrance Day followed by the holidays. “It can be really difficult to not feel the weight of the world.”

Create customized plans

There are some useful tactics to managing holiday stress that could be beneficial for everyone, veterans and families alike. “Offer, but don’t push,” Brian says. “We don’t want to be left out, though your holiday party might be too much for us. But we appreciate the consideration.” Families and loved ones are also encouraged to give veterans lots of notice, avoid surprises, and provide ample details about events and plans. As Brian emphasizes, “Veterans are detail-oriented, so we tend to see unsettled details as risk. The key to supporting a veteran is to meet them where they are.” 

As my husband’s support, we’ve developed strategies that work for him and our family. It minimizes resentment and conflict when you make space for everyone to feel how they feel.

Keeping an open dialogue and making realistic plans helps to manage expectations, avoid disappointment, and makes everyone feel heard and validated. “As my husband’s support, we’ve developed strategies that work for him and our family,” Laryssa explains. “It minimizes resentment and conflict when you make space for everyone to feel how they feel.”

Keep having conversations

When agreeing to social events, it can be useful for veterans to have a pre-determined exit plan, find a space to decompress if need be, and to remember to be kind and forgiving to oneself. “For example, we might plan in advance to have separate rides home from a party in case my husband needs to leave early but I want to stay,” Laryssa says. 

Try to identify and treat signs of stress or overload early. It is also important to model positive behaviour to family members and children to the best of one’s ability. Above all else, veterans should practise self-care. “Which sometimes means saying no to events or stepping back from traditions that might not serve you anymore,” Brian adds. “Make deliberate choices and be compassionate with yourself.” Other ways to prepare for the festive season include planning something to look forward to and booking extra appointments with mental health professionals.

Valued input 

Like the rest of the country, Canadian veterans vary widely in age, gender, ability, and race. All veterans’ perspectives are valuable and deserving of consideration, which is why Atlas engages and incorporates lived experience into everything they do to ensure veteran and family needs are built into the services and resources meant for them. 

The holiday season is known to be a time that can be challenging for this community, and as such the Atlas Institute has invested in resources and messaging that supports these needs based on what they’ve heard from veterans and family members like Brian and Laryssa. 

Fardous added “Our wish for them all this holiday season is to be realistic, go easy on themselves, and find a little bit of their own version of peace.”   

To find more resources and information about managing holiday stress for Veterans and Families, visit atlasveterans.ca/holidays-2023.

*  Canada, Veterans Affairs. “Understanding Mental Health.” Veterans Affairs Canada, February 3, 2023. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/health-support/mental-health-and-wellness/understanding-mental-health#:~:text=About%20one%2Dfifth%20of%20Canadian,with%20emotional %20and%20behavioural%20problems.
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