There is ample evidence that social contact with other people is good for our mental health. Human beings generally benefit from being in a close partnership, a member of a family group or otherwise socially connected, for example sharing a house with friends or being a member of a social group or club. Living alone and being socially isolated are risk factors for various mental disorders, in particular depression.
The United Kingdom has now been in a state of lockdown for nearly two weeks due to the Coronavirus pandemic. We are all being required to stay at home, other than for very specific reasons, such as buying essential food or medical supplies and undertaking daily exercise. Lockdown is posing clear challenges for people’s social connectedness, just one factor likely to lead to an increase in mental disorders within the general population.
It is important to note that being socially connected is not the same as being active on social media. Interactions using social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram certainly have a place in modern society and can help individuals to feel less isolated, however they are not a substitute for face to face contact, relationship building, emotional intimacy and receiving support and understanding.
Young people are particularly vulnerable when it comes to the psychological impact of using social media platforms. Young people may feel the need to impress others on social media, to develop a large following and may compare themselves unfavourably with their peers, paradoxically leading to lowering of self-esteem and an increased feeling of isolation.
This article lists ten ways of staying more connected with other people at this challenging time. It presents ideas which will hopefully appeal to people from all age groups and with varying degrees of IT literacy.
1. If living with a partner, family group or with friends in the same household, make efforts to spend time together and share activities. These might include cooking a meal together, sitting at a table and eating together which encourages conversation and the sharing of thoughts and feelings, watching a film together, reading together or playing a board game. Undertake a project together, such as re-decorating a room in the house or re-designing an area of the garden.
2. When out exercising make a connection with people. Look up, make eye contact, smile and say hello. Ask people how they are feeling and how they are coping with lockdown. This is okay as long as you maintain a safe distance of at least two metres. If you are running or cycling as your preferred form of exercise, you can still look up and wave or say hello.
3. Take every opportunity when leaving the house for an essential reason to interact with people socially. For example, strike up a conversation with the check-out person at your local supermarket as you are packing your shopping. Maintain a safe distance as you are doing so. Speak to people in the service industry whom you may not normally interact with, the cashier at the bank, the chemist or your postman or woman.
4. Form a texting group (for example using Whatsapp or Messenger) with family members or close friends. Keep numbers small, five to ten is ideal, otherwise you may be overwhelmed with communications. This will allow you all to stay in touch and share experiences. You can keep an eye on more vulnerable members of the group.
5. Where you might ordinarily make a phone call to a friend or family member, make a video call instead using platforms such as Facetime, Houseparty, Skype, Whatsapp or Zoom. Seeing someone’s face and observing their facial expressions can help you to feel more engaged with them.
6. Make contact with a neighbour in need, particularly if that person lives alone or is elderly or in the “vulnerable” category. Phone them and ask them how they are coping and whether they need help with anything. If you don’t have their phone number, put a note or card through their door asking them to contact you and leave your phone number. You may enjoy teaching them how to use the internet or how to make a video call from their mobile phone. You can find creative ways of doing this remotely!
7. Form a support group for people who have something in common with you. There are various ways of doing this including leafletting people in your local community, starting a Facebook page or using a shared App. There are many reasons why individuals would benefit from additional support during lockdown. Maybe they are a first-time mother with a new-born baby. They may have a physical disability or a mental health condition and find themselves unable to access their normal support network. They may be recently bereaved or worried about a relative in hospital. No reason is too small.
8. Many people thrive on being busy and active. If you are fit and well and enjoy helping others, there are a number of work opportunities that have arisen as a result of the Coronavirus crisis. These include work in supermarkets, delivery driving and harvesting fruit and vegetables. You may think of an idea for a new business which you can deliver from home such as online personal shopping, home-cooked food delivery or dog-walking for people who are self-isolating. As well as paid work, there are limitless opportunities to become a volunteer. Three quarters of a million people have already signed up to support the NHS and its front-line workers in different ways. There is information available online. You may want to concentrate on volunteering in your local community. Many communities have brought volunteers together through social media and are advertising their services in different ways. Even if you help one elderly neighbour by doing their weekly shop or collecting medication, you will be making an important contribution.
9.Carry out a hobby or interest using an online group. Many groups are popping up. You can join with others to do a virtual workout, yoga class, art session, choir practice etc. Whatever your hobby, you will be sure to find other people who wish to join in with you.
10. If you don’t have access to the internet or if you still can’t get the hang of that mobile phone, do not despair! There are still many ways in which you can make a connection with other people. Watch a television programme giving hints and tips about staying active during lockdown. You could make contact with an old friend, phone that long-lost relative abroad or keep a journal of your daily experiences during lockdown and things that you are learning about yourself. Look at photograph and holiday albums; they are there on the shelf, but when do we ever get the time to look at them! Ask friends and family members to send you letters or photographs, so that they can share their activities with you.
I hope that the above gives you some useful ideas. The list is by no means exhaustive and I’m sure you can think of many other creative ways of feeling connected to others. Ask the people around you how they are feeling and what aspects of daily life they are missing. Try to answer this question for yourself and make it your mission to incorporate aspects of this into your new routine.
This is not an easy time for anyone, but the collective human spirit is strong and we should all be proud of ourselves for quickly adapting in an ever-changing landscape.
© Janet Meehan and Partners 2020
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