Connection is the cure

by Sarah Johnson

At the last conference I went to for work, everyone ended up in tears. I think most of us saw it coming – this year’s Colorado Health Symposium theme, “Achieving Equity in Behavioral Health,” was all but guaranteed to make for some powerful and thought-provoking conversations about mental health, addiction, and family violence.

What was perhaps unanticipated was a positive undercurrent that ran through almost every presentation, discussion, and panel, the recurring message that human connection is the key. Connection, more than one person said, is what saved me.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the things that create distance and disconnection, things like ubiquitous smartphones, a divisive political climate, and over scheduled lives. On the other hand, we’ve also heard dramatic stories in the past week of people coming together, looking out for each other and taking risks for strangers, in response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Florence.

Disaster does have a way of catalyzing individual and community bonds, but few of us (thankfully) will have the occasion to respond courageously in an extreme situation. What we do have are daily opportunities in that middle area between isolation and heroics to make the connections that build relationships and create community.

Good relationships are good for us – we all know that. It’s worth noting, though, that positive social connection is more than just a feel-good idea. According to the American Psychological Association, strong social connection is associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of early death. Similarly, a 2010 study done at Brigham Young University found that weak social connections can shorten a person’s life by 15 years – about the same effect as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Even if you’re not struggling with a significant mental health condition or traumatic event, connectedness, it seems, can save your life.

Two of the presenters at the Health Symposium said things that struck me as representative of vastly different but common takes on mental health, which is fraught with stigma, and connection. Carl Nassar, now a successful licensed psychotherapist in Fort Collins, told a story of backpacking in Europe before becoming a mental health professional. It was early in his relationship with his now-wife, and as they grew closer and shared their stories, she revealed that she was in therapy with a counselor. His reaction: “What’s wrong with you?”

Comilla Sasson encouraged another response. The emergency physician and medical expert for 9NEWS in Denver repeated the mantra “we are all human” throughout her talk. For her, the recognition that emotional distress is a universal experience is one of the most basic points of human connection.

“It’s not a weakness. It’s not a bad thing,” Dr. Sasson said of struggling with mental health. “It’s actually, probably, ‘life.’”

The truth is, we all have times in our lives when things are rough, when it’s hard to get out of bed or to keep up that positive outlook. It’s not that there’s something “wrong” with us, as Dr. Nassar came to realize, because the hard stuff is part of being human. And our connections to other people, also part of being human, are often what make the hard stuff survivable and surmountable.

In an era of social media, ugly politics and crammed calendars, true connection can feel elusive. Research tells us, however, that the quality of the connection is more important than the quantity, and it’s necessary if we want to be healthy and whole.

We are all human. Like struggle, connection is part of the deal. When it comes to “what’s wrong,” it’s also part of the cure.

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