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The importance of connection and community


You only are free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great. ~ Maya Angelou

At 8 o’clock, every weekday morning, for years and years now, two friends appear in my kitchen for coffee, and so one identity I carry includes being part of the “coffee ladies.” While this is one of the smaller and more intimate groups to which I belong, I am also a member (“distinguished,” no less) of a slightly larger group: the American Psychiatric Association, and being part of both groups is meaningful to me in more ways than I can describe.

Dr. Miller is coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Dr. Dinah Miller

When I think back over the years, I – like most people – have belonged to many people and places, either officially or unofficially. It is these connections that define us, fill our time, give us meaning and purpose, and anchor us. We belong to our families and friends, but we also belong to our professional and community groups, our institutions – whether they are hospitals, schools, religious centers, country clubs, or charitable organizations – as well as interest and advocacy groups. And finally, we belong to our coworkers and to our patients, and they to us, especially if we see the same people over time. Being a psychiatrist can be a solitary career, and it can take a little effort to be a part of larger worlds, especially for those who find solace in more individual activities.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that I belong to fewer of these groups. I’m no longer a little league or field hockey mom, nor a member of the neighborhood babysitting co-op, and I’ve exhausted the gamut of council and leadership positions in my APA district branch. I’ve joined organizations only to pay the membership fee, and then never gone to their meetings or events. The pandemic has accounted for some of this: I still belong to my book club, but I often read the book and don’t go to the Zoom meetings as I miss the real-life aspect of getting together. Being boxed on a screen is not the same as the one-on-one conversations before the formal book discussion. And while I still carry a host of identities, I imagine it is not unusual to belong to fewer organizations as time passes. It’s not all bad, there is something good to be said for living life at a less frenetic pace as fewer entities lay claim to my time.

In psychiatry, our patients span the range of human experience: Some are very engaged with their worlds, while others struggle to make even the most basic of connections. Their lives may seem disconnected – empty, even – and I find myself encouraging people to reach out, to find activities that will ease their loneliness and integrate a feeling of belonging in a way that adds meaning and purpose. For some people, this may be as simple as asking a friend to have lunch, but even that can be an overwhelming obstacle for someone who is depressed, or for someone who has no friends.

Patients may counter my suggestions with a host of reasons as to why they can’t connect. Perhaps their friend is too busy with work or his family, the lunch would cost too much, there’s no transportation, or no restaurant that could meet their dietary needs. Or perhaps they are just too fearful of being rejected.

Psychiatric disorders, by their nature, can be very isolating. Depressed and anxious people often find it a struggle just to get through their days, adding new people and activities is not something that brings joy. For people suffering with psychosis, their internal realities are often all-consuming and there may be no room for accommodating others. And finally, what I hear over and over, is that people are afraid of what others might think of them, and this fear is paralyzing. I try to suggest that we never really know or control what others think of us, but obviously, this does not reassure most patients as they are also bewildered by their irrational fear. To go to an event unaccompanied, or even to a party to which they have been invited, is a hurdle they won’t (or can’t) attempt.

The pandemic, with its initial months of shutdown, and then with years of fear of illness, has created new ways of connecting. Our “Zoom” world can be very convenient – in many ways it has opened up aspects of learning and connection for people who are short on time,or struggle with transportation. In the comfort of our living rooms, in pajamas and slippers, we can take classes, join clubs, attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, go to conferences or religious services, and be part of any number of organizations without flying or searching for parking. I love that, with 1 hour and a single click, I can now attend my department’s weekly Grand Rounds. But for many who struggle with using technology, or who don’t feel the same benefits from online encounters, the pandemic has been an isolating and lonely time.

It should not be assumed that isolation has been a negative experience for everyone. For many who struggle with interpersonal relationships, for children who are bullied or teased at school or who feel self-conscious sitting alone at lunch, there may not be the presumed “fear of missing out.” As one adult patient told me: “You know, I do ‘alone’ well.” For some, it has been a relief to be relieved of the pressure to socialize, attend parties, or pursue online dating – a process I think of as “people-shopping” which looks so different from the old days of organic interactions that led to romantic interactions over time. Many have found relief without the pressures of social interactions.

Community, connection, and belonging are not inconsequential things, however. They are part of what adds to life’s richness, and they are associated with good health and longevity. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, begun in 1938, has been tracking two groups of Boston teenagers – and now their wives and children – for 84 years. Tracking one group of Harvard students and another group of teens from poorer areas in Boston, the project is now on its 4th director.

George Vaillant, MD, author of “Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development” (New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2002) was the program’s director from 1972 to 2004. “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships,” Dr. Vaillant said in an interview in the Harvard Gazette.

Susan Pinker is a social psychologist and author of “The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier” (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2014). In her 2017 TED talk, she notes that in all developed countries, women live 6-8 years longer than men, and are half as likely to die at any age. She is underwhelmed by digital relationships, and says that real life relationships affect our physiological states differently and in more beneficial ways. “Building your village and sustaining it is a matter of life and death,” she states at the end of her TED talk.

I spoke with Ms. Pinker about her thoughts on how our personal villages change over time. She was quick to tell me that she is not against digital communities. “I’m not a Luddite. As a writer, I probably spend as much time facing a screen as anyone else. But it’s important to remember that digital communities can amplify existing relationships, and don’t replace in-person social contact. A lot of people have drunk the Kool-Aid about virtual experiences, even though they are not the same as real life interactions.

“Loneliness takes on a U-shaped function across adulthood,” she explained with regard to how age impacts our social connections. “People are lonely when they first leave home or when they finish college and go out into the world. Then they settle into new situations; they can make friends at work, through their children, in their neighborhood, or by belonging to organizations. As people settle into their adult lives, there are increased opportunities to connect in person. But loneliness increases again in late middle age.” She explained that everyone loses people as their children move away, friends move, and couples may divorce or a spouse dies.

“Attrition of our social face-to-face networks is an ugly feature of aging,” Ms. Pinker said. “Some people are good at replacing the vacant spots; they sense that it is important to invest in different relationships as you age. It’s like a garden that you need to tend by replacing the perennials that die off in the winter.” The United States, she pointed out, has a culture that is particularly difficult for people in their later years.

My world is a little quieter than it once was, but collecting and holding on to people is important to me. The organizations and affiliations change over time, as does the brand of coffee. So I try to inspire some of my more isolated patients to prioritize their relationships, to let go of their grudges, to tolerate the discomfort of moving from their places of comfort to the temporary discomfort of reaching out in the service of achieving a less solitary, more purposeful, and healthier life. When it doesn’t come naturally, it can be hard work.

Dr. Miller is a coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She has a private practice and is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. She has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

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