SOCIAL CONNECTION & OUR MENTAL HEALTH: QUALITY NOT QUANTITY
By Carla Grundison
I asked family therapist, Stacey Nealon, and Distress Centre’s Mike Velthuis Kroeze to share their observations around our lack of social interaction in the past 18 months, and for ideas on how to stay connected as we move forward.
CONNECTION IS A PILLAR OF WELLNESS Socializing and connection is an imperative pillar to our physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing,’ Stacey shares. While diet and exercise often hog the limelight, ‘a good support system with deep meaningful connections is just as – if not more – important for good health.’ Mike adds that it’s not about how many people someone can interact with over the course of a day or week, but rather the quality of the relationships that they have access to that is so valuable.
PATTERNS THAT EMERGED In her practice, Stacey has seen increased anxiety and a lack of purpose. ‘People rely on others for their work, purpose and social buckets to be filled.’ Couples also discovered relationship issues when both shifted to work-from-home, newly spending 24 hours a day under the same roof.
With restrictions loosening, she’s seen social anxiety cropping up, in people for whom it has never been an issue before. ‘People have been removed from social interaction and large gatherings for so long, they find it more challenging to feel comfortable in these situations now.’
POSITIVE OUTCOMES Amidst the challenges, there have been positives: ‘People going to therapy for the first time ever has increased, and I’m inspired by the amount of people using this time to heal and reinvent themselves,’ says Stacey. Long overdue career changes, new hobbies, creative endeavours, and finding new ways to connect with loved ones – have all been positive results.
What is ‘equally concerning and hopeful is the increase in the number of contacts we’ve had related to suicide,’ Mike says. While such a statement may sound alarming, there is an upside: ‘It signals to us that people are reaching out for help. Thoughts of suicide are not uncommon … and it’s important that we don’t treat these thoughts themselves as harmful; rather, it’s the stigma of talking about suicide that truly causes damage to our society, so people reaching out to talk about their struggles is a positive.’
STAYING MENTALLY WELL AND SOCIALLY ACTIVE WHILE AT HOME
‘Balance is everything,’ says Stacey. ‘It is easy to lose balance and not engage enough with activities outside of the home.’ Make time to get out into nature and to see the people that matter most. If you feel disconnected she suggests checking out online groups such as book clubs, meditation groups, or gaming groups. While not quite the same as meeting in-person, there is still a benefit here.
‘Making the effort is the biggest thing – carving out a weekly coffee date with a friend, or getting a babysitter once a week for a night out is so important, and yet so easy to put on the back burner if we are not intentional with it,’ she says.
SUPPORTING OUR OWN MENTAL WELLNESS
‘You’re not alone in how you feel,’ says Stacey.
‘The collective weight of this pandemic around the world takes a toll on us individually, and this means that stress levels are up so it’s common for little problems to feel much more overwhelming than before.’
A few ways to help improve your well-being include: talking with a counsellor, coach, or trusted friend; getting outside – sunlight is important for our brain chemistry; explore podcasts and support groups related to mental wellness; meditation apps, etc.
REACHING OUT TO THE DISTRESS CENTRE FOR HELP – IT’S OK TO CALL
People often fear burdening others with their problems and therefore struggle in private. Mike encourages people to call ‘whether or not they feel their crisis is “worthy” enough. It is just as valid for someone to contact us because they are having a bad day as it is for someone to call when they are having thoughts of suicide.’ Connecting early often averts a crisis, and volunteers are happy to support people on a wide range of issues.
‘The most powerful thing that people can do is continue to reach out to others,’ says Mike. Not every conversation has to be long or in-depth to show that you care, nor do you have to have solutions to every problem. Checking in and simply asking about someone’s day, family, or pets can be very meaningful to another person. Even if you receive little response, you’ve opened the door to show your willingness to listen. Sharing your own challenges can build trust and invite connection from others, as well.