“Social distance.” It’s a phrase that’s become a mantra of the pandemic. We see the signs everywhere telling us to stay six feet apart, emphasizing the need for physical separation. While this is an important message to help keep us all safe, the phrase has it all wrong. We don’t need to be socially distant. Physically apart, yes, but that social connection is exactly what we all need during this pandemic.
“It’s an extremely challenging time with mental distress,” Kevin Hines tells me. He has been an advocate for mental health for almost 20 years and knows how even a single moment of connection could change someone’s life.
On September 25, 2000, when Hines was 19 years old, he walked to the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and as he stared down into the water, he waited for someone, anyone to offer a kind word or even a friendly glance. That never happened. Hines jumped.
Hines says even though we may not be able to physically reach out, put our hand on someone’s shoulder, we can still offer those moments of support that could change the trajectory of someone’s life.
“We have got to think of the people in our lives that don’t have someone physically next to them to, to hold on to,” he said. “And we’ve got to be the people to make that phone call and make it on a regular basis.”
Here are ways Hines says we can all make sure we stay in this together:
Call three to five people a day and use video
“We know that when you see someone on that screen, and they show their empathy for you, and they care about you, that has a transformative effect on people and their psyche. We know that it actually does work. I’m not saying it works exactly like being in person with someone. But I am saying that if you do it enough, it can have a trickle-down effect of helping keep someone safe and well, with a bit more hard work.”
Ask for advice
That’s right. When you call someone to ease their loneliness, consider asking them for some sort of advice. “This can go a very long way because they will still feel that they have a purpose in life,” says Stephanie Cacioppo, the director of the brain dynamics laboratory at the University of Chicago.
Cacioppo adds that loneliness is actually a biological signal, “a signal to tell us that we need to do something with our body or social environment to survive.”
I have already tried this with my own parents, retired engineers, living in Florida. They were more than happy to help when I was having some car trouble recently. It gave them a specific sense of purpose, which is so critical when we can’t be together in person.
Remember, it’s not just about what you say
“It’s about making the call and actively listening, letting them get out what is on their chest, no matter how terrifying it might be, no matter how sad or how depressing,” Hines said. “If they can share that pain with you, and you can offer some semblance of kindness and compassion and empathy in the conversation, you could be the tidal wave that shifts their paradigm. You can be the one that guides them to a better place mentally, even just in that moment.”
Never accept the first answer
“If the first answer you get is ‘I’m fine, I’m good’ and ‘I’m OK,’ those are unacceptable answers,” Hines said. “You need to probe deeper. And you say, ‘Hey, listen, I’ve been worried about you for a while. Here’s why. If you’re going through anything, I want you to know, I’m a person you can lean on through thick and thin. I’m here for you.’”
If someone were to drop in front of you physically in cardiac arrest, you would most likely have some idea of what to do – call 911, start CPR. Clearly that person is in physical distress, but when you see someone who’s in clear emotional or mental distress, not only do people often not know what to do, often they turn away. Don’t turn away, stay socially connected and let’s remember that we are all in this together.
How to get help: In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also can provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.