We often talk about the importance of good diet and exercise in the maintenance of good mental health in school; however, building and maintain social connections is just as important. And that’s this week’s #MentalHealthMonday Tip.

A Case for Social Connectedness and Student Mental Health

We all need social interactions; it’s part of our DNA.  There’s a direct correlation between these social connections and the well-being of students, as outlined in Dr. Roger Covin’s book The Need to be Liked. He writes “making and maintaining relationships during the academic year” is critical to the mental and physical well-being of students. “I have seen too many young adults in my office over the years dealing with problems in this area not to highlight its importance.”

“People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression,” according to a study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology. This and other students have also linked higher self-esteem, and greater empathy for others as benefits of stronger social connections.

“Social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being. People low in social connection are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, antisocial behaviour, and even suicidal behaviours which tend to further increase their isolation.” Dr. Emma Seppala.

The problem is that more and more students are reporting feeling isolated and lonely, despite the growing connections we’re making online. So while students are encouraged to eat well and exercise as part of their mental well-being strategy, maintaining strong social connections deserves equal consideration.

Four Strategies For Building “Connectedness”

Below I share 4 considerations every student – and parent of students – need to talk about and consider when it comes to building and maintaining personal connections while at school.

1. Family and Friends – Staying connected to family and friends isn’t always easy, especially for those to travel away to school or when moving from a junior high to a senior high school, or from high school to college.  Be sure to plan time with family and friends such as weekly movie or game night, a weekly brunch, attending a sporting event or participating in other forms of physical activity such as skating, hiking, or biking.

Connecting online is OK, but not a substitute for face-to-face interaction. Take advantage of the opportunity to connect – or stay connected – with family and friends online but don’t rely on it. Be sure to also schedule in-person face-to-face time.  If you do choose to connect online – and especially with family – do so via video conferencing services like Skype or Facetime.

2. Leverage Clubs & Associations – Most students describe themselves as shy and so becoming a “social butterfly” is difficult and leads most to fear attempting social connections.  You don’t need to be a social butterfly to meet people, you only need a venue.

If you’re not an elite athlete, try intramural or recreational sports at your school, which are often there for fun and exercise. If sports aren’t your thing at all, look for social clubs of which most secondary and post-secondary schools have many – and one suited for almost everyone’s personalities and likes: Chess club, psychology club, French club, sewing club, computer clubs, and the list goes on.  Many times you don’t know what you’re interested in but don’t let that stop you – explore or join a few to see what does inspire you – that is what school is all about after all!

3. Consider Volunteering – If you don’t connect to those in your school, consider volunteering with   outside clubs and associations at your place of worship, community centres, seniors’ homes, or larger associations such as Big Brothers/Sisters or the YMCA.

Being of service as a volunteer or maybe as a tutor is always a good way to stay connected to people but it also provides a good sense of self-worth, satisfaction and, of course, looks good on a resume!

4. Become Adept at Managing Breakups – Throughout the course of our lives we will make and lose friends – and for a multitude of reasons. As important as maintaining personal connections is, learning how to deal with those we lose is equally important.

“Unfortunately, learning to cope with the loss of a relationship is also often a part of student life, as is rejection and sometimes exclusion. These types of events cause real pain and can lead to depression and serious anxiety,” states Dr. Covin.

Ironically, it’s other family and friends that are most likely to help us deal with the loss of friendships or other personal connections. We tend or retreat when break ups happen or when we lose connection with friends we’ve become comfortable with. The key is to keep talking about our needs and maintaining a comfortable amount of familial and peer connections daily so that we don’t isolate ourselves.