May 26, 2023

Better understanding our own needs for mental health and wellness and sharing our experiences to build connection with others, bring us closer together – with positive health outcomes for all.

A few weeks ago, I woke to read a remarkable New York Times op-ed. The article, written by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to launch a new national framework to combat loneliness, chronicles the ways in which loneliness and social disconnection affect our health and mental health. These include significantly elevated risks of heart disease (29 percent), stroke (32 percent), and dementia (50 percent), as well as anxiety and depression.

The op-ed was remarkable for two reasons. First, the recognition that loneliness is, in fact, a public health concern is a game-changer in how we think about prioritizing scarce resources to promote wellness and prevent potentially disabling consequences of life experiences such as poverty, emotional trauma, and financial stress. Where we once looked to the medical community to solve health and mental health problems, we now recognize that social connection can reduce the risk of poor outcomes before they happen.

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Members of the Older Adult Behavioral Health Network at Healing in Community

The Older Adult Behavioral Health Network, led by MAMH, recognized the critical need to address loneliness in hosting its annual conference this month. The conference, Healing in Community, focused on strategies to promote connection and find purpose in the aging process. Presenters included traditional providers in the mental health and older adult services systems, but also leaders in the faith community, palliative care specialists, and advocates such as AARP, which is helping to launch a task force to address loneliness in Massachusetts.

But loneliness is not just an older adult phenomenon. As the Surgeon General points out, social disconnection is associated with worse performance in schools, reduced productivity in the workplace, and diminished civic engagement. Most parents and experts blame the social isolation of COVID at least in part for the increased levels of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents over the last few years, for example. Creating more opportunities and support for social connection is part of the Mass Cultural Council’s impetus for providing “social prescriptions” – a program to reimburse non-profit cultural organizations that accept “prescriptions” from professional care providers to attend museums, concerts, and cultural events.

The second reason the op-ed was remarkable is this: Dr. Murthy grounded his discussion by sharing his own experiences, past and current, with loneliness.

“After my job ended, I felt ashamed to reach out to friends I had ignored. I found myself increasingly lonely and isolated, and it felt as if I was the only one who felt that way. Loneliness — like depression, with which it can be associated — can chip away at your self-esteem and erode your sense of who you are. That’s what happened to me.”
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, New York Times op-ed

I can’t emphasize enough the significance of this: To support others with similar experiences, the Surgeon General of the United States disclosed his own shame, loneliness, and the impact on his mental health. Just five years ago, this level of self-disclosure would have raised eyebrows, at least, and might well have led to stigmatizing questions and concerns about fitness. Today, I think most people greeted this with a shrug – Don’t we all have mental health concerns from time to time? – and gratitude for speaking up. By sharing his own story, the Surgeon General signals that it’s okay for us to do that, too – and this is a seismic shift in how we, as a society, think about mental health.

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The Surgeon General’s op-ed also reminds us that, no matter our role, we can use our own experiences to engage others, practice empathy, and improve our effectiveness. I hope you’ll take some time to listen to MAMH’s first-ever podcast series, co-produced with the Kiva Centers, called I Live This: Transforming Mental Health through Personal Connection, which focuses on these exact themes.

As May is Mental Health Month draws to a close, I’m grateful for the many ways that mental health concerns have moved from a “they” problem to a collective “we” dialogue. Better understanding our own needs for mental health and wellness, and sharing our own experiences to build connection with others, bring us closer together – with positive health outcomes for all.

With gratitude and in fellowship,

Danna Mauch

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