As human beings, we are born to relate. Initially, we need to connect and to be connected with to survive. From the day we are born, from our very first experience of being in relationship with another person – usually our mother – right across the lifespan, we are relating to and connecting with others.
Relating to others is specific to all personality types and temperaments. Physical, psychological, and emotional connection are the central planks on which we develop as a person. These are also the central planks on which we buttress and support our mental health across the lifespan. The facilitative environment and experiences a parent or caregiver afford an infant imbue a template for which we as children, through adolescence, and into adulthood, will form autonomous and unique relationships with other people in the world. What complicates this is that there is nothing static in our world. Life is so dynamic and forever changing, that even in the context of a person who experienced adversity or a lack of connection in childhood, our story is never fully written until we die. Carrying this open, hopeful message is important to us at Aware in terms of supporting people who are impacted by depression and bipolar disorder.
Having an emotionally intimate relationship with at least one other person is a cornerstone to protecting and supporting our mental health. Often it is the experience of being ‘out’ of relationship with someone, of having lost a significant relationship with someone, of being disconnected from relationships that a deterioration in our mental health can manifest. At our Support Services, we often hear people describe their experience of isolation, of not having any person in their lives to connect with, to talk to, to share their life experiences with. Being isolated or disconnected from relationships has a clear, detrimental impact on our mental health. Cyclically, this is what occurs when depression or a mood related condition manifests itself. Complications in relationships, or a lack of connected relationships can exacerbate that sense of depression.
Naturally, societal inequalities highlight and sharpen a sense of disconnect experienced on an individual and community basis. The stress, anxiety, and mood implications generated due to financial burdens, homelessness, or poverty put a strain on the experience of connection with people within a familial or social support system. Ongoing, chronic stress without a support system that is empowering can lead to people feeling disconnected or disenfranchised from society.
Understanding mental health through the prism of how we are relating to others in our life, how the ‘ebb and flow’ of how we feel both connected and disconnected, is dependent on the life events we experience and situational factors of our lives. All of us will experience challenges in life, which can take a toll on our mental health. The harmony, and at times disharmony, in our connection to ourselves and others, provides a platform to think about what we might be able to do to empower ourselves to respect that disconnection and disharmony do form part of relationships. The antidote to this could be that by connecting internally (developing a caring relationship with yourself) and with others with compassion, by speaking about how we think and feel, will serve to develop and support our mental health – right across the lifespan.
This blog is by Stephen McBride, Director of Services at Aware for Aware Mental Health Week 2023.