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Restoring Community in an Interconnected, But Lonely, World

“We are in community each time we find a place where we belong.”

  • — Peter Block

Our young people are hurting. Members of the generation born between 1995 and 2012 – which psychologist Jean Twenge calls iGen –– are increasingly lonely and depressed. They go out less often, get less sleep and are more likely to feel left out than their Millennial peers. Adolescent girls are at greater risk than boys to be cyberbullied and to die from suicide.

Twenge, for one, blames teens’ ills on the twin rise of the smartphone and social media.
Teens who spend less time hanging out and more time on their phones communicate with their friends through Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Yet rather than bringing us together, social media can drive us farther apart. When teens do gather with their friends and post about it online, those who were not invited are painfully aware of it. Social media has become a way for many teen girls to ostracize and exclude other girls. Today’s teens may grow into adults who know how to express themselves using the perfect emoji but not the right facial expression, Twenge worries.

Twenge is not the first to point out the negative impact of social media on young people’s physical and mental health. And it’s not only our young people who feel disconnected. Dr. Vivek Murthy, former U.S. Surgeon General, says we are in the midst of a loneliness epidemic – despite technology’s promises to connect us, rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Fueled in part by social media coverage of terrorism, racism and community violence, American teens are increasingly anxious.

Yet social media has the potential to foster connections, especially among marginalized groups, including LGBT youth and people with schizophrenia. There is hostility online, but comments related to mental health are “overwhelmingly positive,” says  Dartmouth researcher John Naslund. “People can learn how to cope with symptoms and how to find the right support.”

Reaching Out to Help

The key is for young people to learn how to use social media wisely and sparingly. It’s also critical for young people and those who interact with them – online or in person – to understand when someone needs help.

That’s what Mental Health First Aid is designed to do. Mental Health First Aid is a skills-based, experiential and evidence-based practice that demystifies and destigmatizes mental health challenges and crises. The training teaches people how to help a friend, family member or colleague who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge. Everyone can #BetheDifference for someone who is struggling with mental health and substance use problems if they know what to look for and how to engage people in open conversation.

Mental Health First Aid can help restore a sense of community and the connections that bind us by increasing awareness that mental health is essential for health. For more information about how to implement Mental Health First Aid in your school, workplace or community, email MHFA@TheNationalCouncil.org.

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