Mental Health: The Value of Human Connection

Jed Applerouth, PhD
May 9, 2023
min read
Mental Health: The Value of Human Connection

A couple of weekends ago I was running around one of the Atlanta Spring festivals, holding my three-year old daughter’s hand, trying to find a vendor who could spare a pair of scissors: I needed to cut down the plastic wrapping on my daughter’s popsicle, which was preventing a fountain of popsicle melt from cascading down her spring dress. The vendor, who sold fabric crafts, handed over a pair of shears, and reflected how she wished she were still dealing with those kinds of problems. She shared about her 10-year old daughter and the very difficult conversations she has had to have of late. With her young daughter, things have gotten very adult, very challenging, very quickly, and she missed the more innocent times, the days of popsicles and spring dresses.

Parents of every stripe worry about their kids, at every stage of parenthood. Adolescence is a particularly challenging time. A few years ago, as I was helping my Mom pack up her house, and was tackling my Dad’s office. I came upon an old journal my Dad had kept during my own adolescence and flipped to a random page. I found his admission: “From when I wake in the morning, to when I go to sleep at night- the question that consumes me: what to do with Jed?” I had to laugh out loud. My Dad and I had such a warm, loving relationship for decades, but I certainly put him through the ringer in my transition from childhood to adulthood.

I’ve known many mothers and fathers in similar predicaments, who get up in the morning and go to sleep at night, worrying about their kids, how to help them, support them, keep them on a healthy path. And I’ve seen these parental worries amplify when parents find their children are going through particularly challenging life passages, even crises. Of late, more and more parents are worried about the mental health of their children, which is appropriate given that more young people are experiencing mental health challenges at rates we have never seen before. For a parent, observing your own child going through debilitating anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation: few things are harder for a parent.

When it comes to the mental health of our young people, the pandemic didn’t do anyone any favors. All of that isolation: it changed us. Erstwhile healthy, vibrant, vital young people were thrown into crisis. Absent the web of support, connection, laughter and friendship, provided by their regular lives and activities, many young people spiraled down. Only now are some recovering, and returning to a new sense of normalcy, as are the parents who accompanied their kids on that challenging journey.

However, it wasn’t the pandemic alone which fueled this trend among our youth, as rates of teen anxiety and depression had been ticking up for years prior to the pandemic. Many pundits have pointed to the rise of smartphones and social media – the culture of performance – to explain why so many of us feel more disconnected than we used to. Even the surgeon general is using his position to shed light on the culture of disconnection, isolation, and loneliness that has become endemic.

I have a particularly intimate perspective on the relationship between isolation and anxiety and depression. For decades, someone very close to me has cycled through protracted bouts of anxiety and depression, intermixed with periods of vital health, creativity, and productivity. I know things are starting to turn when she begins to pull away from social connections. Her calendar, once filled to the brim, gets spare, and eventually empty. The isolation hastens the retreat into self and the inevitable downward slide. Ultimately, it’s other people who keep us healthy, who give us support, critical feedback, human touch, and company. We profoundly need each other.

When I work with students, I never discount the mental health of my students, and the importance of their friendships and connections. I frame success in terms of happiness, satisfaction, and meaning, not just performance. Success is not just a GPA or a score: it’s a young person ready to move forward with confidence into the next phase of life. When I’m talking about the study plan for the weekend before finals, I’m also asking about the opportunities to see friends, to connect.

My own students have been guiding me down this path. When I started this academic year with my Executive Function Coaching students and conducted a basic goal-setting exercise, the majority of my kids mentioned having fun and spending time with friends as top goals for the year. Students know, at some level, that their friendships feed them, nourish them, and are essential to their own happiness. The pandemic brought that into high relief when the friendships were inaccessible, or reduced to zoom calls, Facetime or texts. Something major was missing.

Parents are wise to encourage, but never force, connection, friendship, in-person engagement, particularly during challenging or stressful times. When students are heading towards a stressful time, say finals period, that’s where the time with friends to decompress is even more important. We can get disconnected when we are myopically focused on a goal. We need to find moments to reconnect, with self, with nature, with others. These connections ground us, lower our anxiety, decrease our depression and hopelessness. Connection is one of the fundamental ingredients for mental health.

As we approach the end of this academic year, encourage these human connections. In-person contact will always trump digital contact. Time in nature with friends may be the best way to find our ground. If we can find a more robust balance that integrates our goals and honors our basic human needs, we will all be better off.

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