This last week some of the results from the Mental Wellbeing Survey, a component of the Behavioral Health Needs Assessment, were reviewed and discussed in a town hall forum. Much of the information from the survey is not surprising given what is going on in our community and with the fallout of the pandemic.
The results show that many of us have a strong sense of community and many have struggled with mental health at some point and some level. Increased feelings of loneliness and increased alcohol use may be among the consequences. So, what does that mean for our overall community health?
Social determinants of health are “economic and social conditions that influence individual and group differences in health status. They are the health-promoting factors found in one’s living and working conditions, rather than individual risk factors that influence the risk for a disease, or vulnerability to disease or injury.”
Looking at the underlying issues outside of just medical care related to health in various populations can shed light on solutions. Some common examples include education, income, employment, food insecurity, housing, health services and social isolation.
Locally, there has been a great deal of focus on housing and economic stability related to being determinants of health. That makes sense. We all know there is a large income disparity and housing issue at play.
However, one area that has also been identified as a factor but gets less attention is social isolation or loneliness. While we continue to have that small-town feel, our population is also growing and filled with people who are new to the area and people who are working several jobs to make ends meet. In addition, many of our friends have moved away. The pandemic has made social connection more of a struggle, and individuals may also find themselves isolated by stress, cultural and language barriers, and busy schedules.
It has been identified as a social determinant of health in our community through various needs assessment and is also an issue that more people than you would expect, are reporting. As you might guess, this is reported in even higher numbers by marginalized populations.
Social connection is an important part of overall wellness and can combat loneliness. Connection is the experience of feeling accepted or close to others. It can create a sense of self value and belonging and is an important part of interpersonal health.
Brene Brown has a great definition for social connection: “Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
Is this important for community well-being? The research shows that there is not only a correlation but a strong correlation between levels of social connectivity and physical/mental well-being.
Loneliness and low social connectivity increase the risks in the following ways:
– Increased illness.
– Increased aggressive thoughts and actions.
– Slower recovery.
– Higher levels of anxiety.
– Higher levels of depression.
– Developing unhealthy habits such as smoking, substance abuse and eating disorders.
– Increased negative self-thoughts.
Benefits of high social connectivity include these:
– Increased longevity.
– Stronger resistance to illness.
– Increased emotional regulation.
– Increased mental and physical wellness.
– Increased empathy.
– Higher levels of self-esteem.
Does this mean that we should all have a lot of friends or attend frequent social events? Not so much. As it turns out, the quality of the connection is much more important than the quantity. Levels of isolation and loneliness were on the rise before the pandemic.
Everyone feels lonely from time to time. It is when it begins to affect your ability to function or goes on for an extended amount of time that it becomes problematic and can lead to depression.
Signs that you may be struggling might include the following:
– Increased illness
– Sleep disturbances
– Increased anxiety.
– Increased negative thoughts.
– Increased defensiveness, negative self-thoughts and antisocial behavior.
– Short temper, decreased impulse control.
What are some ways to connect if you or someone you know are feeling lonely?
The benefits of connection are about quality, so you don’t have to go out to where there are a lot of people (which is a good thing right now). There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. Someone can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. Reaching out to even just one person will make a difference. Something as simple as calling and reconnecting with someone or reaching out for lunch, coffee or a walk. Get to know someone by asking questions and listen to answers. That helps if you are the one feeling isolated or if someone else is feeling disconnected. Take notice of the people around you. Get to know them and what is going on with them, share stories. In addition to helping them it will also make you feel more connected.
If you notice some patterns or are worried about yourself or someone else, reach out for help. It is easy with everything going on to feel isolated and withdrawn. One of the most amazing qualities of this community is how open, helpful and accepting we can all be when someone is struggling.