The Social Cure

Our two previous posts have examined the recent upsurge in mental distress among children and young people.

In summary, there’s been a big increase in presentations to Emergency Departments and this is probably due to social factors impacting all of us. Services are struggling to keep up, and youth in distress are coming in overwhelming numbers.

In particular, our social connections are under enormous pressure. Family bonds are stretched by family relationships where parents/carers are unavailable due to work, travel, separation, and preoccupation with their own mental health struggles. Hugh Mackay, social researcher, speaks of ‘an epidemic of loneliness’ in Australia. Young people are on social media to the neglect of rich and complex face-to-face contact in social contexts.

What do we do? Obviously, we respond to individual distress. But beyond that we need to nurture and value our communal lives, something that is not only common sense but also increasingly recognised in health research.

Health experts talk of ‘the social cure’ – the beneficial effects on our mental and physical wellbeing when we move from loneliness and separation towards connection and community. And this applies to all age groups.

And it applies in reverse: when we lose part of our social identity by leaving childhood or school behind or divorce or scandal or redundancy or retirement or we can easily become depressed.

By nature, we want to be part of one or more ‘tribes’, to be ‘in the same boat’ as others with whom we identify: our family, our club, our team, our band, our gym, our church, our environment, our party, our culture, our street, our neighbours – our group. We interact and help each other out and are helped in turn. You can see why the men’s shed movement is spreading and mothers with prams meet at cafes.

To live without these connections is to be impoverished, regardless of monetary wealth, and to have poorer health. In the big picture, the creeds of our faith speak of ‘the communion of saints’, where, as the jingle says, ‘we’re all in this together’.

So let’s encourage our youngsters to get involved.

Ten social identity tips for better health:

- If you feel socially isolated try to join a group.

- If you can, join more groups.

- Try to hold on to positive group memberships, especially if you are going through a challenging time.

- If you lose membership in an important group, seek out a new one.

- Invest in groups that are important to you and in groups by which you are valued.

- Be wary of groups that make unhealthy choices.

- Get support from your groups, but also give support to others in your groups.

- Recognise that it can sometimes be healthy to try to leave disadvantaged and stigmatised groups, while at other times it can also be healthy to stay.

- Challenge the stigma and disadvantage that produce health inequality.

- If you experience health problems seek professional help — ideally from a source with which you identify.

On the school website there is advice on finding information and support for a range of needs (Current families > Counselling).

Martin Graham

School Counsellor