To mark Mental Health Month, CHESS Connect staff member Emily Dever sat down with Andrew Ellery from icare to talk about
Andrew is an expert in human centred research and design, specialising in disability, mental health and wellbeing, workers compensation and community development.
Andrew, we heard you speak recently at a local event about the importance of social connection for optimal mental wellness, in your own words, what does “social connection” actually mean?
Human beings are a deeply social species, social connectedness is the experience of belonging and relatedness between people and refers to relationships with others. It is a measure of how people interact together. For individuals, it involves both connections with others within an extended family or social circle, and beyond that circle to wider communities such as the workplace, a geographic community or a community of interest.
So why does social connection matter?
Social connections are critical and integral to a person’s individual overall health and wellbeing as well as being beneficial to society.
How does social connection improve our wellbeing?
Relationships give people happiness and contentment and a sense they belong and have a purpose in society, an ongoing 80-year research project by Harvard University found that” Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”
At a practical level, it provides people with the emotional support, material help, and information that they need to thrive it also lessens the impact of stress and trauma.
What happens when we aren’t connected?
In short it leads to loneliness and isolation; low levels of social connection are much more associated with poor physical and psychological health outcomes as well as a higher likelihood for antisocial behavior which in turn leads to further isolation.
Social isolation is associated with increased mortality and increased risk of multiple diseases.
Dr. Emma Seppala in her article “Connectedness & Health: The Science of Social Connection” (Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, May 2014) notes that the decline in social connectedness may explain reported increases in loneliness, isolation, and alienation.
Dr. Seppala identifies that ‘people low in social connection are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, antisocial behavior, and even suicidal behaviors which tend to further increase their isolation’. She refers to a landmark survey showing that lack of social connectedness predicts vulnerability to disease and death beyond traditional risk factors such as smoking, blood pressure, and physical activity.
Multiple scientific studies show that involvement in social relationships benefits health. Studies of mortality across industrialized nations provides significant evidence – the studies show that individuals with the lowest level of involvement in social relationships are more likely to die than those with greater involvement (House, Landis, and Umberson 1988). In another example, Berkman and Syme, 1979 showed that the risk of death among men and women with the fewest social ties was more than twice as high as the risk for adults with the most social ties.
What about social media – is it a good way of getting social connection?
This question comes up a lot as I travel NSW speaking with community about connection; whether social media and networking is a force for good and evil, and there is no simple answer in my mind, it really is a question of balance. I keep in touch with loved ones overseas and teammates who travel the state by using technology and I see that as a positive as it is with keeping those in rural and remote environments connected and a whole host of other uses. On the other hand, it does dismay me sometimes to witness a tea or lunch break at a workplace where everyone jumps on their phone and there is no face to face conversation. We pick up so many clues from body language, facial expressions and the physical presence of people that help provide that feeling of belonging we all need, we simply cannot afford to lose that.