Edward M. Valentin, Ph.D., LCSW, Families First Director of Clinical Services
With April being National Counseling Month, this year more than ever, attention needs to be drawn to the need for accessibility to counseling and therapy for everyone and to remove any stigmas some might associate with the need for assistance with mental health. Outside of COVID19 itself, one of the largest consequences of the pandemic is the severe decline of mental health across all ages group, but particularly youth. Suicidal risks and the suicide mortality rate have seen an increase in recent history. For everyone, and especially young people, awareness needs to be brought to how talking to a trusted individual can assist in working through mental health issues, not only because of the pandemic, but at any time.
What we do know is that the pandemic was marked by isolation which has been described as the “cruelest” part of this disease. Those who feel alone describe it as the worst of emotional pain. The disconnection feels so harsh because of our being biologically inclined to connect, putting people at significant risk, especially children and youth.
Research studies attempt to explain and describe how our instinct to bond and connect is a matter of life and death beyond our infancy stage of development and well into adult life. Human empathy allows us to help others, cooperate, forge defensive systems, reconsolidate, and create environmental balances. The field of neuroscience is increasingly finding biological explanations for the mechanisms of social behavior which is like a biological contract to bond and connect for species survival.
Our social behavior has a world of activities occurring in our bodies. One in particular is the neuropeptide hormone oxytocin, which is the hormone mostly associated with social bonds. 2 When kids and adults are stressed our hearts have receptors calling for this hormone in us to connect with other people as a trigger for seeking help.
Like a soldier who has flashes of images of their children and other loved ones in the most critical moment in battle or existential danger, this is our bodies telling us to “get up, fight, and live.” It appears that the same hormone that bonds mothers to their infants to trigger lactation is the same hormone that is released when we fall in love or make a new friend. And it appears that this is a powerful survival mechanism.
For some people, feelings of loneliness and depression have exhausted the body’s ability to say, “get up, fight, and live.” They have biologically become became accustomed to isolation, but not emotionally. Psycho-social resiliency is low perpetuating, into cycles of serious mental health challenges. It is important for mental health interventions to not only focus on reducing symptoms, but to deliberately help our children and youth to build resiliency. Strengthening their ability to strengthen their mental capacity to effectively deal with adversity and connect and see their lives in a positive future. This may be the answer to building the resiliency our children and youth need to combat the crisis.
What it all comes down to is that our minds are wired to connect. When we constantly feel isolated and alone in our depression, our bodies start losing the ability to connect with others for help – like a wear-and-tear of our survival mechanisms. One of our primary instincts to survive is through the ability to establish and maintain healthy connections, known as psychosocial resiliency. The loss of connection has had dramatic effects on the population, particularly on today’s youth. These effects will continue well after the pandemic.
If you or someone you know shows signs of isolation, withdrawal or any indicators of loneliness, this person may be at high risk. Talking to people may not be enough but it is the best start. Acknowledging the observation with warmth and empathy and using statements of inclusion, such as, “you’re not alone” “I or we are here”, and “let’s work this out together”. Making people feel part of something or an integral part of people’s lives makes them feel good because they are supported and cared about. Sometimes a simple “I got you” may save a life. When searching for a mental health provider for your child or someone you love, ask if they have a plan for building resiliency and building connections.
We all want to be a part of something “bigger than ourselves” at least it is a popular statement of life’s journey. Is it a stretch that the “bigger than ourselves” is our actual calling to bond and connect? If so, we owe it to our children (and the children of others) to do a better job at connecting with them. Families First serves a diversity of social and emotional needs of children, youth and families, and is seeing a common demand for social connection, social validation and recognition.