By Emily Skehill, Peer Advocacy, Supports, and Services Associate
For our 70th Mental Health Month, Mental Health America (MHA) is expanding on last year’s theme of #4Mind4Body. We are exploring the topics of animal companionship, spirituality and religion, humor, work-life balance, and recreation and social connections as ways to support mental and general health.
Peers play an essential role in helping the most isolated members of our communities develop the social connections that are a crucial part of overall health. Having other people to relate to, especially about mental health experiences, often validates our feelings and gives us hope.
Without these interpersonal relationships, we all feel varying levels of loneliness. This often sparks a cycle of withdrawing, straining the relationships we do have, and then withdrawing even more. Studies have shown that people who feel more connected to others have lower levels of stress and anxiety and are less likely to experience depression. They also tend to trust others more easily, which leads to others trusting them – and thus more connections are formed. Those who spend little time socializing are more likely to show antisocial behavior, leading to further isolation.
MHA’s It’s My Life: Social Self-Directed Care program focuses on people who are severely struggling with isolation, helping them to engage in their communities. Those who participated in this program experienced increased quality of life across 12 different measures and a drastic reduction in hospitalization rates.
Our physical health suffers in the presence of loneliness too. A lack of social connection causes more harm to your health than obesity and high blood pressure and is a strong predictor of vulnerability to disease. Generally, being lonely causes the same amount of damage to your lifespan as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The harder it feels to be social, the more it matters that you put in that effort. If you don’t already have people to talk to, it’s worth challenging yourself to build those relationships – with friends you can both rely on and support.