The holidays are meant to be filled with joy, but they can also be stressful and challenging as many of us struggle with mental health. Looking after your wellbeing is more important than ever at Christmas time.

But, with uncertainty looming thanks to Covid numbers rising, the extra stress of navigating family dynamics and worries about loneliness for some, you might be in need of some serious survival tips to get through the festive season.

With this in mind, our Panda team have shared their invaluable tips on ways you can support your mental health this festive season.

Six ways to support your mental health this festive season

Christmas carols are playing on the radio, tinsel is winking at us from the shops, and most of us are feeling – well, a little flat. 

The festive season can be challenging at the best of times, given the flurry of last-minute activities and the pressure to have a wonderful time. This is often exacerbated by feelings of loneliness, and a natural reaction to the loss many have experienced at a time when we are urged to value those around us. Throw in the climbing Covid-19 statistics, a new variant, and it’s easy to understand why the prevailing mood is one of depression, anxiety and angst, rather than festivity. 

The good news? There’s plenty you can do to boost your mental and emotional wellness at this time.

  1. Release the pressure

No, you don’t have to feel as if it’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, you don’t have to go to another party if you don’t want to or don’t feel safe to do so. No, you don’t have to deck the halls. We receive a lot of messages from the media around this time of year, telling us how we ‘should’ be feeling, and the outcome is that we may feel guilty, resentful and out of sorts if we don’t fit in with the image of the ‘perfect’ festive break. The solution? Ditch the sense of obligation, and lower your expectations. The reality is that for some people, this time of year isn’t magical at all – it can be really hard. If you fit into this category, give yourself permission to feel unhappy.

  1. Take care of the basics

This is a message you would have heard many times over the past year, but that doesn’t make it any less valid: all the emotional ‘stuff’ is a lot easier to deal with if your physical wellbeing is taken care of. That means eating well (perhaps even giving up some of the indulgences of the season), getting enough sleep and exercising. 

  1. Don’t be afraid of disappointing others

The meaning of Christmas has become blurred behind a flurry of commercial messaging – which means that there is a heavy emphasis on extravagant gifting. That can place enormous pressure on those of us who are battling with the economic fallout from Covid – or who simply don’t want to buy into consumerism. What to do..? Stand your ground. Have a conversation with those who will share your celebrations and maybe set some ground rules: perhaps you can all agree to give presents to the children only, for example, or set a price limit on gifts. Accept that you may be able to please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time…. 

By the same token, try to resist some of the social pressure that comes with this time of year. If you don’t feel like the drama of an intense family or friends ‘get-together’, explain that you’re happy to pop in for an hour or so, but cannot stay longer. See how it goes, don’t over commit.

  1. Reach out to a professional

It’s ironic that although more people than ever are suffering from mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, generally speaking, society still stigmatises these conditions – to the extent that many remain reluctant to seek assistance when they might desperately need it. The ‘Join Panda’ App provides a great solution in the form of a free-to-download app that makes it possible to access community support; check out information around mental wellness, and even get expert help, anonymously. The app, which is free of any charges in 2021, also has the functionality to track and monitor progress, using a gamified approach which makes the process far less daunting. Available via Apple store here https://apps.apple.com/za/app/join-panda/id1573239587 or Android here: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.joinpanda.panda or search for ‘Join Panda’ in the app stores. 

  1. Gift yourself

It’s natural to think of others at this time of year, but concentrate on what will help you to remain calm and happy. Would it help to review and reset your boundaries? Do you need some time out – a quiet morning, a meditation, or a walk? Figure out what you need, and take the time to do it. A long chat with an old friend or a deep and meaningful one with a counsellor? Consider downloading the Panda app when you feel stressed, alone or just a bit sad- you will be able to talk to others who understand your feelings, or even a counsellor if you need.

  1. Plan ahead

It’s not possible to avoid all the stressors that come with the festive season. There will be work tasks to complete before travelling, travel chaos and activities to attend. There will be lots of indulgences that might leave you feeling physically sluggish and lacking the vitality to tackle problems. There will probably be an odd argument with a family member (or two). Try to plan your days to give yourself enough time to recuperate and revive after all that socialising. This will give you a little space to make plans that will be less stressful, like time out to do your hobbies.

Background on the Panda Mental Health Support App:

The Panda App makes mental health support more accessible

With so few South Africans receiving the help they need, there’s a potential solution to this challenge in the form of the Join Panda app – a free-to-download digital app that is designed to put mental health information, community support and expert help literally in the palm of your hand.

The Panda App is the brainchild of Allan Sweidan, a clinical psychologist who previously co-founded and headed up the Akeso Group of Psychiatric Hospitals, and Alon Lits, former General Manager and Director of Uber in Sub-Saharan Africa. The app makes it easy for anyone to invest time into their mental wellbeing by anonymously connecting to an array of valuable resources to assist them on their journey to improved mental health. 

Users of the app have free access to the ‘Forest’, which allows them to engage with a community of other app users who may be facing similar challenges. The app also offers assessment tools to enable users to measure their mental well-being. A gamified tracking tool lets users document and monitors the progress they are making on their personal mental health journey. 

Anonymity is key to so many health-support programmes, as many people are reluctant to publicly share their personal challenges, and this is core to the Panda app.

For many people across the country, mental health support is considered to be inaccessible or too expensive. While it’s estimated that a third of all people will at one time or another experience at least one mental health issue during their lifetime, many of these individuals don’t have the luxury of time, money, medical aid, or even transport to find a professional with whom to discuss their anxieties or feelings of depression. This makes the digital format for care a welcomed alternative solution. 

For anyone who feels too afraid or stigmatised, or for whom mental health care and support are simply not available or affordable, the free-to-download digital Panda App has been designed to provide them with easy access to mental health information, community support and expert help. Available on app stores by searching “Join Panda” or the app stores or via 

the Apple store here https://apps.apple.com/za/app/join-panda/id1573239587 

Android here: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.joinpanda.panda). 

Find us on social:

Twitter @JoinPandaApp – https://twitter.com/JoinPandaApp

Instagram: JoinPanda_App – https://www.instagram.com/joinpanda_app/

Facebook: @JoinPandaApp – https://www.facebook.com/JoinPandaApp/

LinkedIn: JoinPanda  linkedin.com/joinpanda

Most people have an idea of what the worst circumstance is that could happen to them, and sub-consciously or consciously navigate their lives trying to avoid it. For some it is the fear of illness especially if their parents faced complicated health problems. For others it could be financial: the fear of being poor (no one fears being wealthy).  For some it could be losing someone. Either when a relationship ends or when a person’s life ends. For parents of teens, it is a myriad of concerns that we fear. “The worst thing” can take on any form to different people in different circumstances. For myself, there were several “worsts” but none more than when it concerned Savannah.

Savannah And I at the Whitney Houston Show last year

Like many new mothers, when I became a mother for the first time, I had a certain level of obsession about how I wanted Savannah to be cared for. But then, when she was diagnosed as a person with cerebral palsy, my attitude switched between “whatever will be will be” to “follow every piece of advice” exactly, precisely according to the doctor or therapist or anyone who I believed had any experience in caring for a child who had significant challenges.  Some days I felt overwhelmed by how much I had to remember about her respiratory issues, her physical challenges and her cognitive challenges.

Yet, like most new mothers, I was ever hopeful that my love was enough to save her from any and all obstacles. We were going to prove the world wrong and she was going to move out of my house by the time she was eighteen and attend university. I wrote a post some months ago titled “When love is not enough” about how we face that truth time and time again.

Sometimes the harshest circumstances create the most steadfast people.

So was the extent of my hope. My heart raced towards this idea only because on an emotional level, I was running from the possibility of Savannah never being able to walk and worse still, I was ever fearful of one day finding that she was not going to wake up. I fully believed with all my heart that this diagnosis of cerebral palsy was the “worst” that could happen. I ignorantly thought that surely once a baby is diagnosed with such a condition, they must be exempt from all other terrible issues?

But no. In fact that very diagnosis and later on the added complications of Savannah being a person who is autistic, taught me that she was never exempt from anything. Her life was like a magnet for all strange and complex health problems both physically and cognitively. If I thought I was overwhelmed by Savannah being diagnosed as a person with cerebral palsy, I had no idea that was only the very first inch of the iceberg of all her challenges.

During the first ten years of Savannah’s life, I went through a cacophony of emotions as I grew from being a teenage parent, to a divorcee, to being a single parent, to my parents marriage finally falling apart, to eventually building my own second marriage and becoming a mother to Talisa.  All that in ten years! So it is no wonder that I struggled with depression for most of my life. I could not share this with my family because they believed it was a sign of weakness. When I married Michael this was further complicated when as I Christian I was told that I could not be depressed.

So continued my confusion about why I was here and even more bizarrely why, of all the women in the world, was I given a daughter who needed so much? If being depressed and having thoughts about suicide was causing me to be my own obstruction in receiving God’s love, what hope was there for me now in my role as a parent? As a parent who was struggling with post traumatic stress disorder from childhood trauma and other issues; I felt very lonely and isolated. While I could verbalise some issues to other women in my family and in my church; I was almost always left feeling inadequate. Michael tried very hard to understand this inexplicable, deep sadness but he could not undo what he had not done to me.

All he had to offer me was his love believing just as I believed about my love for Savannah: it would save us from further pain.

The truth of that belief became real about six years ago. I was having a very hard time coping with Savannah when she finished school. A few of our friends’ children with special needs were going to live in facilities and Savannah liked this idea. She did not fully understand what that would mean for her though.  For a few days Michael and I were having these heart wrenching discussions about Savannah trying a respite centre for four days a month.  It was difficult to admit that I was not coping with Savannah and that she and I both needed a break from each other. It was a tough conversation and one that both Michael and I struggled to find the right words for. Michael was listing off all his fears:

“We have worked so hard for her and it feels like we are giving up.”

“How can we trust them?”

“They don’t know her. What if something terrible happens to her?”

We face the storms of life, and we survive.

As I listened to him put into words what was also my fears, I surprised myself by my response. I said something like this: “What could be worse than what we have already faced? Our worst fears are already true. She lost her ability to walk by herself.  Her doctors believe that she has a limited life span. But we are still here. Those things are true but we are still here. The worst has happened. It is happening and we are still okay. What more can we not face?”

That was a defining moment for me. As I said those words. It was as if I also reminded myself of all the “worsts” I have lived through. It had all happened already. The power of that realisation put into sharp focus that in the midst of all the chaos of life, I raised a family who are intact and thriving.  It hit me so hard to realise that we had already lived through all the “worsts”.

Just before Talisa was born was probably one of the hardest times in my life and it lasted a few years. I was mourning the loss of my family as my parents marriage disintegrated, while coming to terms with Savannah’s additional diagnosis of autism and trying to be a good mother to Talisa who was a very demanding baby. The weight of everything at that time was incredible. I felt that life would never be happy.

But somehow here I was years later having this discussion with Michael about Savannah having an experience that I knew required a great deal of courage on my part. Like physical exercise that builds muscle,  somehow I had grown mentally and emotionally strong in the areas of my life story that should have destroyed me. I gained the ability to remain steady and in control. I learnt to see life from other people’s perspectives which is a great ability when raising a family where a child is autistic and is also a person with cerebral palsy and other conditions.

So did love save us?

Faith Hope Love

What else could have given me the mental agility to be flexible and the wisdom to be emotionally vulnerable to become everything my life needed me to be. Being loved unconditionally by my husband was God’s gift to me. Learning to love myself for exactly who I was, and trusting God’s plan for my life, was my gift back to the loves of my life.

Love saved us. The “worst” has only broken us wide open to share it with everyone.

In the end what else matters?


My family and I are slightly obsessed with Christmas. We usually can’t wait to set up our tree which is a celebration that is infused with a few of our own traditions. The most important being that we have a special dinner afterwards to kick off the countdown to Christmas Day. But before we tuck into a sumptuous meal (which I never spend more than an hour making, because simple, easy dishes are fundamental to my sanity); we complete a few other traditions. One segment being the specific part that each of our children play in ushering in the Christmas season when we decorate the tree.

Eli places the star at the top of the tree, which has always been the job of the youngest child.

When we only had the girls, it was then Talisa’s job to crown the tree with the star. Now she has the job of switching on the tree lights.


The Christmas baubles with photographs that are on the tree were made by my sister-in-law as a gift to us in 2015.

Savannah being the eldest gets to place the wreath on the front gate with help from Michael. Each person places their own Christmas ornament on the tree and we capture the moment in a photo to mark the occasion. I keep photographs of this moment for each child for almost all their lives.

We have ornaments for extended family too and they get to decorate our tree with it when they visit us. Then we have ornaments from friends and family who live far away and we think of them as we find a bare branch for their ornament.

As I watch my children taking more of a lead in decorating the tree and I listen to their banter about continuing these traditions in their own homes one day, I’m struck by the contrast in what makes up their childhood memories and in what makes up my childhood memories. This time of year can be a wonderful experience for many children when their families look forward to coming together to recreate moments from an ocean of memories filled with traditions, warmth and love.

The festivities were of no interest to our black labrador Blue.

For adults with traumatic childhoods, this time of year can be a sad reminder of what we missed out on as children. The magic of Christmas are only drops in our ocean of memories. I remember so many Christmases as a child feeling an ache inside of me as I ‘made-believe’ that I was happy. I wrote about this earlier this year in the post The Past And the Present Met and in a post last year You Cannot Be Depressed Then There Was Me

I remembered so badly wanting the make-belief to be real. With that childhood as my backdrop, I became a parent to a child with a disability at eighteen years old. I had to parent within a family and a social circle with loose morals and a tight grasp on maintaining the look of success at all costs.

For many Christmases as a parent I wrestled with depression and suicide. Not having developed skills to recognise and to deal with trauma, meant that I felt more overwhelmed at this time of year as my life became defined by my daughter’s special needs.  It was a very long process to becoming mentally and emotionally strong.

What kept me from completely going over the edge was the determination to raise my children in a life that was without fear, without self-doubt, without question of my love for them, without insecurity and without violence.  I wanted my children to know what it felt like to look forward to weekends and school holidays and to enjoy being with their parents in peace. I wanted them to have the freedom to express themselves freely and honestly without restraint or fear of disappointing anyone.

I wanted them to want to live each day to its fullest.

I wanted to ‘want to live’.

I wish someone told me that it was okay to be depressed and that I could still live a good life. Now I’m telling you. You can still live a good life.

I wanted to get better from having lived with sadness for so long. It felt like it was in my bones. It was so much a part of me that it took a long time for me to recognize it. But eventually I did. I did whatever it took to get better. For me it meant learning to believe that my life had value. I found that value in understanding who I was as a child of God. I am so eternally grateful for that simple truth and all that it has given me.

Becoming more of who I was meant to be was a process of understanding my faith and understanding myself. I could not always get professional help and it was incredibly tough to have to deal with my demons very much on my own at times. There were relationships that I could lean on at different points, in big ways and in small ways. There were also very dark days when no one understood what I was going through. I wish I had known about the South African Depression and Anxiety Groups website which would have been incredibly helpful in finding resources.

Someone told me they felt I write to ‘poke the world’. I guess that is one way to look at it. Though I have never intended to do that. I simply write because I’m grateful. To have lived with depression and to have overcome suicidal feelings while being responsible for what seemed like everything and everyone, is a story worth telling. It is worth telling from all its perspectives and all its shades.

It is especially worth telling at Christmas time, when I am snuggled in my home with my Christmas tree twinkling away and the memory of all my loved ones beaming with delight keeping me company. December is a time when many people from all different walks of life are more likely to be depressed and suicidal. If this season makes you hurt like hell and you can’t find something good to hold onto then please remember this:

The past is made up of memories. You are a seed of hope. Starting today you can make new and beautiful memories.

You are as capable as anyone of having a good life. Believe Me.

We love our Christmas ornaments. Each tell a story of a life of abundant love.

For helpful and practical advice about how to deal with the Christmas Blues, you will find this article Understanding and Coping With The Christmas Blues by @DarleneLancer worth a read: 
I particularly like the helpful online videos from the South African Depression and Anxiety Group.

It is already two weeks into the New Year and this is my first blog post for 2018. My hope for you is that wherever you are in life today, that this is the year you will know resounding Joy and have boundless Courage.

I learnt alot about that in 2017. I realised that I found my Courage a long time ago but it has taken all of my adult life to find Joy. This holiday season has truly been Joyful which is an amazing description for me to give. Usually I dread holiday season.

As a family with an adult daughter with complex special needs; relaxation and socialising has always been labour intensive which in my opinion, defeated the purpose and left me feeling confused and cross every, single holiday.

Yup, I understood the holiday blues very well.

This holiday season I enjoyed a pleasant, beautiful start to the year on a beach in a quiet seaside town with my husband and children as well as with our extended family. My daughter Savannah still has the same struggles and some additional struggles but what she doesn’t have anymore is a mother who feels overwhelmed and frustrated with life.

I’ve written in a previous blog about how long I battled suicidal thoughts. Even long after I stopped feeling that death was an option, I still felt a deep sadness: a melancholy in my soul, a wish to slip quietly into darkness. 2017 was the year that I understood that darkness and it’s hold over me.

It was the year that I accepted that no one can save me from the sadness but myself. 2017 was the year I became my own hero. I was marked by the frailty of life and touched by the gift of each new day as our family faced a new set off challenges with Savannah.

To that end, my husband surprised us by booking this holiday so that we could make memories with our children and still keep Savannah as comfortable as she needed to be.

Ironically, I was holidaying just a stone’s throw from the home that our matric class of 1995 stayed in for our Matric farewell tour. Being there; seeing the familiar train track we walked along twenty three years ago and the sandy road that leads to the Children’s Home were we stayed brought back memories. The past and the present met each other.

Before that tour I remember how us girls worried if we would be able to fit everything that we would need: like a hairdryer and clothing for every season and occasion! We worried about where we would sleep and if we had to share the bathrooms with each other. Oh horror of horrors for teen girls. It seemed so important back then.

I vaguely remember an evening with a beach bonfire, the dinner hall which I think had pink and peach chintz curtains, an illegal alcohol related gathering and walking along the train track to the mini shopping centre during the day.

I remember how often on that tour and for the rest of the year I felt that I didn’t belong amongst those amazing people. I had nothing to offer this group of confident and friendly fellow students. I deeply admired the few I had formed close relationships with; and wished I could be more to them.

I admired the sets of friends as much as I admired the individuals who made up the sets. But when you see yourself as worthless, you can’t comprehend that you have value.

Throughout the two years that I was at the school I was battling a deep depression. I felt like an empty shell. I felt old and sad. Yet to everyone around me, I was the dependable, responsible, happy girl.

My first suicide attempt was in the November of 1995; the night before my final Afrikaans matric exam. I was found in time to be taken to a hospital; my stomach was pumped and drained and I was made to write the exam. I was dazed and tired but write it I did.

My attempt to end my life was glossed over by my family and I was left feeling guilty for putting them through that. By the next August I had become a mother and a wife, and the sadness intensified with the shame and pressure from my social circle.

Two years later I was a single parent to a child with a disability, a divorcee and working to make ends meet for my daughter and myself. I only faced each day because I was responsible for my daughter. Nothing else. I felt trapped in this world.

This week I heard of the death of a well respected professional in the disability community, and the Facebook announcement of her death had this quote “People do not die from suicide, they die from sadness.” So true.

I remember friends who have left this world by their own hands and how often I have waltzed with suicide and I angrily question that in a time when we know more than we have ever known about emotional well being, mental health and psychology and the importance of support structures…why, oh why do we not see the sadness? What are we missing that it is still so difficult for people to find help and understanding?

It seems that all that’s happening is that we are becoming a generation with intellectual prowess but devoid of genuine sensitivity and care towards each other.

It’s not enough that the British Royal Family have stepped out and spoken about mental health and their own struggles; it’s on us in our homes, in our social circles, in our offices, in our religious organisations who need to open our minds and hearts. We must find our Courage to speak so that no one in our social circles feels so alone that suicide seems to be a reasonable answer.

We must find our Courage to speak about suicide. We must learn to be honest about our own struggles. We should be living consciously that we are part of each other. People are always more important than things. Always.

As I gazed out at the dazzling aqua blue sea and listened to the pounding of the waves on the shore, I was reminded of the pounding of my own heart. I am still here. I learned to live past the sadness and I ended my waltz with Death.

If you feel that life is not worth living, please afford yourself the respect of speaking to someone who understands. You are not alone in this and help is available to you.

Please Stay.

Contact the South Africa Suicide Crisis Line

For a suicidal Emergency contact us on 0800 567 567

24hr Helpline 0800 12 13 14







I did not realise that so soon after starting the blog, I would feel compelled to share a deeply personal struggle that has taken most of my adult life to overcome.

The apparent suicide of Charles Bennington came up in my Facebook feed a few times over the last days. I have not listened to his music so I can’t say that I reacted as his fans have reacted. However, the fact that he may have committed suicide was what caught my attention.

Ever since I was thirteen years old a line began to circulate in my head “anything to stop the pain”. I grew up in a home of controversies and contradictions. The details of that part of my story is irrelevant now but it was impactful enough at the time to cause me to overdose by the age of seventeen years old.

The overwhelming idea that life was not worth living had taken root and while having Savannah strengthened me to fight for her life; it was a long road before I believed whole heartedly that life was worth living. In fact, long after I was married to Michael and already a mother of three, I battled with the idea that I was loved, I was wanted and I was purposed by God.

I remember one night lying in a heap in Michael’s arms saying that I had this picture in my head that there was a bridge between happiness and I; and that I would get him and the children over it but I was not worthy of crossing. Having lived with sadness for a long time, I know that an instant spiritual cure is not always true for many people. The issue was never with God anyway. It was with people.

There were many people who were quick to judge my “choices” and who blatantly championed themselves about how they were better off than I was. I always thought it odd at how people engage in acts of kindness and generosity to the poor and the needy, yet often have no time or compassion for those who sit beside them who are so sad that they don’t see value in life.

Somehow, we have trained ourselves to think that the people with whom we fellowship alongside in our places of faith, our places of work and social circles are all nicely put together like we are and if they aren’t then it is not our problem. We offer quick, passionate words of advice based on aiming to fix their problem so that we don’t have to bear the guilt trip and pain of listening to it again and again, or we simply distance ourselves from them.

My husband used to say that if you have the joy of the Lord you cannot be depressed. For those people like him who have been raised in hope and love, they cannot always grasp the enormity of hopelessness.

And there was me: Michael’s most humbling lesson and likely his most passionate prayer. All the words in the world could not destroy the darkness that rooted itself deep in my soul convincing me all the time that the world would be better without me.

Only love and compassion restored me.

Michael’s patience, hand holding, trust and treating me better than I believed I deserved, slowly helped me to see that I was worth God’s love. If this man who sacrificed so much for me could love me, then surely God who I could not see must love me too.

Between Michael’s dedication and a friend’s compassion; slowly the darkness began to subside. Even though I still think life is too hard; I now know I am enough to handle it, and that it is okay to not be everything for everyone. I learnt to love me too.

For those who don’t have friends and family whom they feel they can turn too, it is such a tragedy. When standards and expectations of those around them are too high and they know that they cannot remove the masks they wear; then suicide seems like the only reasonable option.

And what a shame that is. Not their shame but ours. It is a stain on humanity when we react with detachment and judgment when someone commits suicide. We should bow our heads in shame that we failed a fellow human being. And the only redemption for us is to turn our attention to their families and be dedicated in helping them to find value in life again. Just be kind and patient with people.

If you are battling depression or suicide, please speak to someone today. Your life is worth it. You have purpose. You are LOVED.

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