Alone together: Why social connections are essential to mental health

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
To date, over 23 million people globally have been connected to resources from expert mental health organisations through Facebook’s Emotional Health Centre. If someone is posting content that suggests they may be seriously struggling with their mental health and is considering suicide or self injury, we may provide them with resources to connect them to local partners. AFP

The pandemic has had an undeniable impact on our collective mental health. Social distancing measures and a seemingly endless cycle of lockdowns have stripped us of liberties and privileges we once took for granted, and the constant uncertainty in our daily lives has tested our emotional resilience. Every day, we are confronted by the reality that time is a gift and life is incredibly fragile.

Social connection is integral to building emotional resilience

Research suggests that the main drivers of mental wellbeing are strong relationships. As social creatures, it’s not surprising then that spatial distancing, lockdowns, and self-isolation are among the major contributing factors to feelings of fear, helplessness and loneliness.

One of the antidotes to these feelings is connection and since the pandemic began, we have seen people find innovative new ways to support each other, build community and stay connected to family and friends.

Almost two years on, the pandemic continues to disproportionately impact vulnerable populations and marginalised communities including young people and the elderly populations around the world. For many of these communities, there remains a stigma around mental health. When conversations do take place, these tend to be centred around mental illness and rarely approach mental health in the same holistic manner that we consider physical health.

In Cambodia, more than 6,500 people are part of over 900 FB groups dedicated to supporting people with mental health problems on Facebook. These groups are focused on creating a safe space for people to discuss mental health/illness, provide support and ask questions.

Connecting people to mental health resources globally

We recognise that with Facebook’s scale, we are in a unique position to help make mental health resources more accessible to everyone, and to help connect people to the support they need including from partners. This is especially important in communities where there’s stigma around mental health, and people are not able to open up about their challenges or seek help.

To date, over 23 million people globally have been connected to resources from expert mental health organisations through Facebook’sEmotional Health Centre. It provides comprehensive global mental resources and guides to address mental health topics including stress, anxiety, depression, emotional crisis, grief and loss. If someone is posting content that suggests they may be seriously struggling with their mental health and is considering suicide or self injury, we may provide them with resources to connect them to local partners.

Relationships are at the core of Facebook and it’s these important social connections that tend to be key drivers of wellbeing. Many of Facebook’s features are designed to help enhance relationships and build community. My team works closely with external wellbeing experts and product teams across Facebook to apply research and best practices to our diverse set of products.

To that end, in recent years, we’ve also launched in-app tools with people’s wellbeing in mind so they can manage their experience on our platforms:

●Time spent controls: Includes a dashboard that shows how much time people have spent in the app in the past week, a customisable daily time alert, and a mute push notifications setting to limit notifications

●Snooze & Unfollow: Helps people hide certain pages, groups or people

●News Feed and Ad Preferences: Helps people see more or less of certain friends and family and see relevant ads

●Take a break: Gives people more control over when they see their ex on Facebook, what their ex can see, and who can see their posts

●Instagram Hidden Words: Allows people to automatically filter offensive words, phrases and emojis into a Hidden Folder, that they never have to see. It also filters DM requests that are likely to be spam.

We have more work to do, but we are committed to continue to find ways to enable safe and supportive communities across our services in these unprecedented times, and make mental health and wellbeing resources more accessible to our global community.

Dr Michael Valdovinos is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in behavioural and cognitive psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology.