What did we learn from the pandemic? Many of us are quick to answer with something like “wash your hands” — but what did we learn about our mental health?
One study done by the Journal of Epidemiology, published in 2022, said those who lived alone during COVID experienced severe psychological distress, or SPD. And though popular culture tends to glorify introversion, people still need people, just as they always did. Furthermore, digital connection doesn’t count – people need to see people in person.
“There’s nothing like sitting next to someone and having the ability to hold hands, rub their back, give a hug or sit still next to each other and just be,” remarked Cecelia Moore, life enrichment director at Mount Pleasant Gardens.
“Shared space is the most beneficial means of connection. Social media has its perks in cases of isolation due to illness, injury or familial distance. . . . but the option is sorely limited,” Moore added. “With people facing mental and physical challenges such as dementia, social media is difficult for them. They don’t make the connection that they need to feel love and belonging.”
COVID took a toll on many seniors, who found themselves more alone than ever. Moore noted that mental health and cognition were at stake for many people at Mount Pleasant Gardens and that physical health was an issue as well.
“The old adage, ‘you never know what you got until it’s gone,’ never proved to be truer,” she said. “A lack of close connection to loved ones created such a strange nuance. Due to the lack of normalcy, depression and physical weakness were two of the biggest negative impacts we needed to combat.”
Of course, it’s not just seniors who need social engagements to thrive. April Ward, a licensed professional counselor at Brighter Day Therapy, works with numerous teenagers and young adults who are anxious and depressed from too little personal contact. In many cases, the young adults aren’t even aware of what’s causing their symptoms.
“I try to find out more about how they spend their time — who they hang out with, what they do daily,” Ward said. “If they only leave their house one time a week to go grocery shopping, for example, that’s not healthy. Everyone needs social interactions — it signals the happy chemicals in our brains.”
Because of the conveniences afforded by our digital lives — including remote work, items people once shopped for but now get delivered to their doorstep and more — teens and adults are losing their natural ability to engage even in casual ways, Ward said. For example, making pleasant conversation at work is increasingly difficult for those who regularly retreat behind computer screens.
“Yes, technology is great, but people still need real, social, in-person interaction. It could just be making a conversation with someone for five minutes. But if you don’t make an effort, you will lose that social skill,” she added.
Helping patients build on their social skills takes many forms in the Brighter Day office — from offering conversation starters to encouraging friendship through clubs and sports. “Their therapy homework might be to say hello to a coworker they’ve never talked to before,” Ward said.
“Just from looking at a person, you might be able to talk about something. I tell patients to come up with open-ended questions — get the other person talking about themselves, and then you can just add to that, and let them do most of the talking,” Ward explained. “And the conversation keeps going once you find common ground. If you, for example, know they’re a foodie, you can discuss a restaurant. Or you can bring up a sports team.”
Moore is swift to point out that not all residents at Mount Pleasant Gardens want to be social. While opportunities for social connection are always made available, they aren’t forced.
“Thriving can mean different things to different people,” she said. “Knowing the characteristics of each resident makes this area of my job easy. There are some people, as we all know, who tend to be introverted. This is a human right. We wouldn’t be doing the residents any justice if I forced them or even strongly sold them on the idea of participation. We have found that the less you coax or pressure them, the more they feel respected and the more likely they will be to come out of their bubble.”
A balance of healthy alone time and healthy social time is ideal … somewhere between the constant scrolling of empty digital connection and the complete avoidance of in-person contact. And don’t think you have to do anything elaborate — just getting out of the house and into the world is often a great first step, Ward emphasized.
“Go to a cool coffee shop and see people, or talk to the barista,” she said. “Go to a dog park, go to places you enjoy — naturally, people will be there.”
By Denise K. James