Relationships, Social Connections & Mental Health
By J. Michael Smith, DHSc, PA-C
We live in a time of great social change, brought about by a number of factors. For one, people are retiring from the workforce at a high rate in our country as Baby Boomers age out of the workforce. Additionally, COVID brought about a sudden change in work for many people, as millions went from daily on-the-job work to isolated work from home or unemployment. Both of these have caused a significant loss of social connection with friends and co-workers, not to mention isolation from family for many. On top of this, we have been moving away from the close-knit communities of our small-town past, with more people living in, or near, large cities and surrounded by people, yet feeling alone, lonely and isolated due to a lack of social connection. To those of us in mental health professions we see the result of these events with increased numbers of people reporting depression and anxiety. In fact, Texas has seen anxiety and depression increase four-fold (that’s 400%) from before COVID until now!
A long term study done by Harvard University on happiness continues to this day asking: “What makes us happy in life?” As so many of the participants in the study reported, one of the most difficult challenges faced as people aged out of the workforce was having difficulty replacing the social connections from work, which had sustained a sense of belonging, meaning and purpose to their lives. Think about this for a minute. While we all know people who are more than happy to be by themselves, the vast majority of us need the sense of connection, support, belonging and purpose that only strong work, family, friends and schoolmates provide. Unfortunately, staying in touch with former work colleagues, fellow students, family and friends has been difficult, much more so because of the need to socially distance ourselves from others during the pandemic, and fueled by fear and anxiety over having a potentially fatal infection. Sadly, the fear of being around others led to some serious negative consequences, including some people dying alone, unable to be visited, comforted or touched by those they loved the most. Domestic abuse, alcohol and drug abuse were also amplified during this time as people sought to self-medicate their anxiety, loneliness and depression.
There continues to be ongoing “ripples” related to the pandemic and amplified in those older, retired Americans who have been cut off from work colleagues due to retirement, and family and friends due to COVID. While some complain that they have to “go back into the office” now that the pandemic is past, many feel a sense of great joy to reconnect with colleagues. Others, having been cut off and isolated, experience depression, anxiety and struggle to reestablish social connection. Most of us feel that we have significance and meaning through our work, our church, our school, or friend and family groups, and we gain healing from renewing and deepening those connections. So, what do we need to do to regain greater mental and emotional well-being? As Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale has said, “Work is therapy!” So is volunteering…at an animal shelter, a homeless shelter, a food pantry, a community organization, a church or synagogue. Going out for coffee, or dinner, with friends again. Inviting others for pizza night, table games or a walk in the park. These are all ways to reestablish connection. Stop talking with people only on FaceBook or Snapchat. Get out and see real people…at work, the store, your place of worship, an organization, among your family and friends that you haven’t seen in a long time. You will regain both your sense of connection and a healthier mental perspective.
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