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MCFARLANE: Season to be jolly but maybe not for all
Claudette McFarlane

The majority of us like to see the winter holidays starting with Thanksgiving and topping off with the Big New Year, as one long continuous celebration. We gather with loved ones, dress up, share good food, and enjoy festive holiday events.

Yet, some of us may seem reserved about joining in. Unfortunately, thousands of families are without their loved ones due to mental health or substance use challenges, incarceration or care in behavioral health hospitals, or even a loss by suicide.  

The National Institute on Mental Health reports that more than 700,000 people die by suicide every year and suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15-19 year-olds.  Provisional data from CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics indicate that there were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States during a 12-month period ending in April 2021, an increase of 28.5% from the same period the year before, demonstrating the effect of the COVID pandemic on our nation’s mental health.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately two-thirds of female and around a third of male inmates report being diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Of those who enter jail each year with a serious mental illness, an estimated three-quarters have a co-occurring substance use problem. 

Most families bear the brunt of the consequences of their loved one’s mental health or substance use issues. Fees for legal counsel, funds for commissary and visitation during incarceration, and medical bills for services not covered by insurance are a drain on family finances.  Family members experience hopelessness, helplessness, and guilt from not being able to communicate with their loved ones on a regular basis, or having been able to protect their loved one from their own behavior.  There is the additional burden of not knowing how their family member is being treated while detained or hospitalized: whether they are safe and being provided the proper medical care that they need.

I have first-hand experience on how hard it is to spend the holidays without a loved one.  Last year I found myself depressed and in high anxiety as my son spent eight months behind bars and in a maximum lock-down behavioral health facility after experiencing a mental health crisis.  Diagnosed with a serious mental health illness at the age of 14, he was only 23 years old when he was taken into custody from a mental health facility after punching another patient while in a high state of paranoia.  While holding him accountable is appropriate, I question why the hospital wasn’t equipped to separate patients clearly exhibiting symptoms of mental illness, and why were there no dedicated spaces to isolate patients until stabilized. There is an ongoing battle by families of those with mental health issues to advocate to our local, state, and federal legislators the importance of approving more funding to improve mental health facilities and to expand resources in our healthcare systems and communities.

We also continue bringing awareness by sharing our stories and offering support to those living similar experiences.  Numerous local agencies work to provide resources and support groups, including NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Rockdale-Newton, Newton County Family Connection and Newton County Drug Free Community Coalition, Newton-Rockdale Suicide Prevention Coalition and View Point Health, Rockdale Coalition for Children and Families and Community Resource Network, Grit and Grace Recovery Community, Rockdale County Stepping Up Initiative, Give Life a Chance, and Cat10Entertainment.

You can make a difference for family members missing a loved one this year by continuing to spread the joy of the season, but offer the gift of empathy, understanding, and hope.  If you know of someone who is struggling, take them out for some coffee or cocoa, invite them over to share time with your family and friends, or just pick up the phone and check in. It may not be the answer to all of their problems, but your interest will count and be truly appreciated.

If you would like more information about NAMI Rockdale-Newton or other supports, please contact Claudette McFarlane at or Newton County Family Connection at

Claudette McFarlane is a mental health advocate and educator.  She is a Certified Peer Specialist- Parent (CPS-P), with both lived experience and experience as a family member, supporting various loved ones who have severe mental illness diagnoses. Claudette is the current President of NAMI Rockdale-Newton Counties.