FIVE STEPS TO MEANINGFUL CONNECTIONS 

Jessica Taylor

Mental illness affects the lives of an increasing number of young Australians.  As the World Health Organisation has identified, by 2030, depression is expected to be the largest contributor to the world’s disease burden (WHO, 2012). According to the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, one in five of Australian adults experienced a mental health disorder in the 12 months prior to interview, and almost half the total Australian population will experience a mental health disorder at some stage in their lives. 

Within Australian schools students are clearly impacted by the changing education and social landscape with more than 40% of Year 12s reporting levels of stress, anxiety and depression greater than what is expected at this age (Black Dog Institute, 2017). These confronting statistics suggest that throughout the course of our lives, we may personally experience mental health challenges, and a have family and friends that suffer too.

EDIT 2 - Friends holding hands 

When experiencing such challenges, it is common to feel isolated and alone. By the very nature of these illnesses, it is difficult to reach out and seek support. Living with mental illness may lead people to feel that they are the only one experiencing such challenges, and that they don’t want to be a burden or misunderstood. Yet, research shows that individuals who have strong connections with both family and friends, experience lower levels of symptoms that precede mental disorders. Similarly, when those who are suffering from mental health issues feel supported and bolstered by those around them, the outcomes can be significantly more positive. 

Positive relationships with others may mitigate risk factors for mental ill health by reducing feelings of being unloved and alone, and by boosting wellbeing and its associated benefits (Layous, K., Chancellor, J., & Lyubomirsky, S. 2014). Supportive relationships can allay both the internal beliefs and the environmental conditions that can facilitate loneliness, thus helping to protect people from mental disorders. It goes without saying, that meaningful relationships and connections with others are critical for our mental health. Reaching out and seeking help from people and support groups, while not always an easy action, is an important step when things are getting too hard.  Thankfully, there are many organisations committed to raising awareness, opening the dialogue around mental illness, and helping to support communities that care.

The World Federation of Mental Health (WFMH), World Health Organisation (WHO), and Mental Health Australia (MHA) are three of these such organisations. They aim to to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and open the lines of communication. Collectively, they encourage people to work alongside each other to provide support networks that help to ease the burden for everyone and increase the community’s capacity to care for those who are struggling.  

World Mental Health Day, on October 10, recognises the shared responsibility that we have in creating caring communities, and how we can all play a part in generating and sustaining a healthy society (Mental Health Australia, 2017). 

To support World Mental Health Day at GGS, we will be bringing together the common messages of these mental health organisations, with the hope of highlighting the values and benefits that can come through connection and close relationships (Mental Health Month NSW, 2017). Good relationships and close connections with others, allow us to relish the good times and gives us strength to deal with the challenging times.  Therefore, our goal is to focus on simple evidence-informed strategies that people can do anywhere, anytime to build and maintain connections.

The below five simple actions and ideas are designed to assist you in connecting more deeply with yourself, and those around you. These strategies are in line with Geelong Grammar School’s Dare to Care principals of ‘give’, ‘be active’, ‘feel’, ‘engage’, ‘keep learning’. Why not give them a go?

1. Give 

Put your device down – disconnect to reconnect. Invest in others through your time and attention.

Eminent cognitive scientist Daniel Levitin has identified that increased connectivity, communication and information have loosened boundaries between work and rest and have further increased demands on our attention. 

‘Role overload’, refers to burnout from trying to do too many things at once and attempting to meet the many demands of work and life. A result of this may be ‘cognitive overload’, which lessens our ability to gain perspective. Being in this state has many negative effects on our mental and physical health. Our ability to plan and organise, make decisions, think creatively and solve problems, control our emotions, resist temptations and empathise with others are all greatly affected (Carter, 2016). Essentially, ‘cognitive overload’ fundamentally impairs our ability to function effectively. So to help avoid this state, why not put your device down, and create some head space? Then we can observe how we connect, and with who or what. 

2. Be Active

Slow down, move mindfully and engage your breath. As we all know, our access and exposure to more and more complex information and communication mediums can make us feel like we’re drowning in data. Taking time to live in the present moment, to move slowly and breathe, will result in a more conscious approach to life. 

Therefore, we are asking you avoid the ‘go-go-go’, and consider how you can ‘slow-slow-slow’. Take time to slow down, engage your breath and reengage with your body and mind. This can have profound effects on our nervous system, allowing us to step out of our sympathetic response (fight or flight) and into a para-sympathetic response (rest and restore).  This has powerful flow-on effects that impact our ability to be present, to be more effective communicators, and to be consciously compassionate teachers and care-givers. 

3. Feel

Savour human contact. A 10-second hug is all it takes to lift your mood. Learning to savour positive experiences of the past, present and future is a valuable skill for children to learn. Research shows that people who are experiencing depression still experience positive emotions, however these feelings are less frequent and more fleeting.

Connecting with someone by savouring a 10 second hug can help to boost your immune system, increase levels of oxytocin (‘bonding’ hormone), and reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels.

4. Engage

Do you see what I see? Connect with one other person and lean into a new perspective. Stepping back and gaining perspective is a complex skill. First, we must be aware that there are other valid ways of seeing the world (problems, situations, and so on); then we must be willing to consider another perspective and be able to view the world through that imagined perspective. When we do this, we are opening ourselves up to greater self-awareness, developing the ability to think of, relate to and feel empathy for others. Connecting with others and sharing new perspectives helps us be more accepting of others. 

5. Keep Learning 

Celebrate and share a story about overcoming a challenge to bring hope and connection with others. Research has shown that the ability and opportunity to share your challenges with others can have a positive impact on individual wellbeing, including increased subjective wellbeing, positive affect and greater life satisfaction. (Quoidbach et al, 2010; King, 2001). Sharing our stories of overcoming challenges and allowing ourselves to sit in a place of vulnerability with each other can inspire hope and help us move closer to our shared desire of being loved, supported and connected. 

With these five simple, evidence based actions, we encourage you to connect more deeply with yourself, reach out to others, and embrace the world around you.  Together we can continue to increase awareness about mental health and mental illness, and embrace the shared responsibility that we have in creating and sustaining a mentally healthy society.

Click here to download a list of references and useful websites.