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WHEN CHRISTMAS TURNS BLUE, CRISIS LINES RING OFF THE HOOK

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It's the holiday season and time for those red-and-green blues. Crisis lines are ringing off the hook, and those answering them are having their own struggles.

Overwhelming and often unrealistic societal expectations, coupled with financial burdens, take a huge toll this time of year and not just on those desperate enough to call for help."If we assume the clients' problems, we can't help them," said Jed Eriksen, director of psychiatric emergency service for Valley Mental Health and University Medical Center.

"I enjoy my job eight hours, could tolerate 10 but couldn't manage 12," Eriksen said. "When I leave my office, I take note of the blue sky and the mountains across the valley and the green grass or the snow."

None of which means Eriksen isn't sympathetic to the plight of humanity. But a life outside work is imperative, he said.

"Then you are renewed and can come back into the trenches and work with the realities of life," he added.

But there are a few misconceptions about holiday blues, the most prevalent being that suicide rates jump this time of year. While Utah's suicide rate was seventh in the nation in 1991 - 16.2 deaths per 100,000 population - the numbers don't increase significantly over Christmas.

Ironically, more people tend to take their lives in the spring, after the holidays are done, said Sheryl B. Pender, president of the board of directors for the American Association of Suicidology in Denver.

"Springtime is the time when people blossom and grow. A lot of people realize they are in a terminal posture and aren't making any progress," she said.

Utah Medical Examiner Dr. Todd Grey said suicide rates in November and December have either been on average with the rest of the year, or slightly below. Over the past two years, rates have eased upward during the springtime and climaxed in June.

Still, that doesn't diminish the fact the holidays are stressful. All it does is illustrate that many people suppress their feelings until after the New Year.

"The stark realities of normalcy surface when the merriment is over," Eriksen said.

That's one of three reasons Eriksen says may account for many holiday crises. The others include the psychiatric ailment of seasonal affective disorder, which is characterized by episodes of depression in the fall and winter. Its acronym, appropriately, is SAD.

The third reason Eriksen suggests is that the drawn-out cold, smoggy and gray winter months take their toll.

All of this makes the season a tough time for crisis workers, as well.

One Utah County Crisis Line volunteer said he finds holiday callers all the more poignant because Christmas is supposed to be happy. The volunteer spoke on condition that he be identified only as "Joe."

Joe has learned that he can't allow himself to be plunged into a caller's problems.

"I'm just there to be a voice of hope," he said.

It's not his job to offer solutions to problems but rather lend a sympathetic ear. In some ways, he says he's a happier man for it.

"It actually forces me to look harder at my life and find the things that bring true happiness," he said.

Terry Tiller, a crisis worker at the Valley Mental Health adult residential treatment center, enjoys working during the holidays, partly because he used to have a difficult time with the season himself.

His solution was to start a personal tradition by volunteering at the crisis line on Christmas Eve.

Tiller's co-worker, Paul Rasmussen, came up with his own, unique method to brighten the holidays last year for center residents.

Rasmussen and program director Lynn Whittaker obtained copies of the script to Frank Capra's holiday classic, "It's A Wonderful Life," and acted it out with the residents.

The idea, he said, is to de-emphasize unrealistic holiday expectations.

"We want to normalize their experience," Whittaker said.

Whittaker said he offers the same counsel to his workers. He tells them to set realistic goals to avoid overresponding to callers.

"We can't magically transform the callers' problems," he said.