On the importance of social connectedness for mental health and wellbeing
Mental Health has been a taboo for a long time. It is encouraging to see the topic going up the agenda and becoming a subject of lively conversation, not just amongst professionals but with family and friends too. It is slowly but surely becoming looked at for its universal relevance and central importance to our lives.
Ahead of the ‘Tomorrow’s World Today: new frontiers in mental health’ conference, I’m delighted to share here my non-medical perspective, mainly drawn from Inspiring Scotland’s Link Up programme. Perhaps the impetus to explore new frontiers can be the opportunity to remind ourselves about what lies at the heart of being human?
Rather than purely focusing on fixing what seems like a rising tide of poor mental health, how about protecting and promoting those things that give us good mental health? The benefits of being in nature and getting some physical exercise are key and well evidenced.
Possibly even more essential and yet often ignored (taken for granted?) is our need to connect with others, belong, and have purpose.
Dr Mark Rowe: “Purpose is perhaps the leading indicator of your wellbeing. Pablo Picasso put it well when he said the meaning of life is to find your gift and the purpose of life is to give your gift away!”
Over the last five years, Link Up has worked in 12 of Scotland’s most socio-economically deprived neighbourhoods and enabled over 17,000 people to come together, connect, build relationships, feel they belong to their community, and develop a sense of purpose. We did not set out to improve mental health, but have witnessed first-hand how fundamental social connectedness is to everyone’s health – mental and physical – and the critical role of Link Up in facilitating that.
The success of Link Up has, for a large part, come from that dogged determination to be mindful of pace and scale. In a world where ‘time is money’ and speed is supposedly key to success and delivered to us through every bit of technology, it is all the more important to slow down.
In the neighbourhoods where we work, we are taking the time to get to know people, to nurture relationships, and to support the development of a wide range of activities – all at a scale and a pace that enable trust and reciprocity to grow. Our workers are genuinely interested in people’s stories and listen to them. They naturally adopt a highly authentic and human response. They empathise and bring practical and emotional support to deal with the hardship and toughest of challenges, and just as importantly, they share in the joys and celebrate the successes. They provide support directly to individuals, but also create positive ripples in the wider community, generating supportive networks that empower people to help themselves and to help one another.
Technology is often given as the solution, but is it friend or foe? The solution or the problem for our mental health? Maybe the more cutting edge technology becomes, the sharper and potentially dangerous its blade turns out to be? Social media is a case in point; we can use it to grow community but must be guarded not to fall into the pitfall of “the more we connect online, the more disconnected we become”.
What Link Up has shown is that carefully facilitating welcoming social spaces and places – indoor and outdoor – where people can meet, enjoy each other’s company, and be inspired to join in community-led action must be at the heart of our efforts to promoting health and wellbeing, and reduce inequalities. Harnessing people’s interests and skills, and encouraging those to be shared offers that opportunity to find your gift and give it away, thereby fostering that all-important sense of purpose. To give is to receive and can only happen when we’re connected to others.
Stimulating social participation increases community empowerment and resilience, strengthens social capital and local economies, which in turn allow people to deal with complex challenges, including around mental and physical health, and increase ‘copability’.
We’ve showed it with Link Up: participants get energised to effect change for themselves, their family and their community. They learn to trust; trust in themselves that they can make a change, trust the workers that they will be there to support them, trust in one another to form a whole that is stronger than the sum of the parts. This creates greater self-belief and higher aspirations.
By fostering greater community connectedness, Link Up is the catalyst for greater health and wellbeing. The good news is … it’s not rocket science and doesn’t cost the Earth; so what are we waiting for?
‘Our great task is to succeed in becoming more human.’
Jose Saramago. 1922-2010. Nobel laureate for literature 1998
Link Up Performance Advisor at Inspiring Scotland
Want to know more about the Future of Mental Health? Find out about our Conference – Tomorrow’s World Today: New Frontiers in Mental Health
Want to write a blog about mental health? Get in touch with Jenny Lester