The Importance of Community

“If you only see divisiveness then you will assume that we are divided”.

Mitchell Mathews, LCSW

Whether or not you believe it, we as humans are pack animals. We thrive when we are a part of a robust community.  Many of us think that we would be better off as lone wolves left to navigate the treacherous waters of life on our own. However, living life alone can leave the individual feeling disconnected, bitter, and depressed. The purpose of this article is to discuss the importance of having relationships with others and identify ways to help build a strong sense of community.  

I truly believe that the topic of community and connectedness is something that needs to be at the forefront of our society. It appears from my clinical observation and personal experience that human connectedness is in trouble. There are several factors that I have found to increase disconnection and seclusion. First is technology. There is no doubt that technology has made countless improvements in society and on a personal level my devices make my life much easier, but at what cost. We have all been on a bus or train and had the courage to look up from our phones, just to see that everyone else is glued to their screens. I don’t think technology is all bad but unfortunately many of us find it easier to scroll than to spark a conversation that could lead to a genuine connection.  

What we are scrolling through leads me to the second factor impacting community disintegration. Strong communities have shared values and hopes for the future. Far too often I come across social media or news that reflects two opposing teams at odds. For me this is difficult because I see more value in spending our energy identifying what we have in common, rather than dwelling on things that we may disagree on. Each team focuses on the others perceived downfalls, and there is a sense of discomfort and tension that never really gets addressed. This is dangerous and can lead individuals to isolate at an increasing rate. The rise in societal division is snuffing out genuine connection before it has the opportunity to begin. Another way I look at this factor is, “If you only absorb information about divisiveness then you are left believing that we are divided”.  

Third, I think that it is important to mention the COVID-19 pandemic. I would like to preface that I am not arguing for or against how the pandemic was handled by your family, your neighbor, or the government. Rather I want to discuss what I have observed over the past three years while working in the emergency department of one of the largest pediatric hospitals in the world. There has been a drastic increase in suicidal ideation and suicide pre- and post-pandemic (over 100% increase per CDC). I believe that there are many factors that have influenced this rise, however something I have witnessed in almost all cases I’ve worked on is increased isolation. When completing mental health evaluations and assessing for risk factors, one of the areas you spend time exploring is a person’s support system and peer interactions. The Pandemic led to school transitioning to virtual, social distancing, and limited social events outside of the home. Theren began a breakdown of the natural supports and daily interactions needed for thriving adolescent development. Although this may have seemed to be the appropriate response at the time, there was little focus if any on the long-term effects of this increased isolation on the overall health of adolescents.  

These three factors; Increased reliance on technology for interaction, increased divisiveness in our communities, and increased isolation have made genuine human connectedness less common and more difficult. Despite the challenges, I maintain hope that as individuals and communities we can increase our human interaction and develop lasting and meaningful connections. I will provide three interventions that you can implement into your own life or in the life of your child to increase a sense of community and support.  

First, feeling a sense of genuine connectedness is difficult. If you sit back and wait to become more social, then you will wait forever and never be social. With that being said there needs to be an effort to connect. For my adults reading. You already spend many hours at your workplace every week, so use this as a tool. This is a good place to start conversations. You do not have to approach a conversation with the intent of a heartfelt “deep talk”. Rather I urge you to approach the conversation with optimism. You will be surprised at how the conversation builds effortlessly. If you run into a roadblock in the conversation, I find that offering the other person a complement is a good spark to the dialogue. If you are a parent, when you go into public with your kids interact with the people you encounter. The checker at the grocery store, the crossing guard, your neighbors. Let your kids see you be intentional with others rather than gazing at your phone to avoid conversation. It will be hard the first few times, but you will gain confidence with repetition.  

 Second, I recommend volunteering. If we wake up the morning, go to work, go to bed and repeat there is not much we offer in the way of connecting with others or helping our communities. Volunteering is a great way to get connected with like-minded individuals in addition to helping people. Donating your time to others makes you feel good, and at the same time makes you grateful for what you do have. Some places that always need volunteers are soup kitchens, homeless shelters and food pantries.  

 Lastly, I think it is important to monitor what media, news, and content you absorb on a daily basis. I am not saying to throw your phones in the trash, rather I am suggesting that you be cognizant of what you watch. Remember “If you only absorb information about divisiveness then you are left believing that we are divided”. Work to watch and share positive examples of humans. If you look beneath the surface, you be rewarded and see that there is so much kindness, warmth, and support that people provide to one another on a daily basis. When talking about something with your partner, children, or peers try to find the positive in the story and share it. 

 Again, I am left hopeful that genuine connectedness is attainable for everyone. We cannot depend on others to make us feel more connected, rather we need to first look within ourselves and ask how we can connect with others.  

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