This blogpost contains discussions of suicide. Please use discretion.
When Calvin learned that Josh, his best friend in high school, had taken his own life, he was shocked. Calvin remembered Josh as a party waiting to happen, full of life, energy and creative ways for having a good time. He was almost always surrounded by lots of people who wanted to be his friend. Over the last 10–15 years, Calvin had seen much less of Josh as work and family took more of his time, but nothing prepared him for this news. How was it possible that Josh could be so alone in his distress, so incapable of telling someone what was going on that he concluded the only way out involved taking his life?
Calvin tried to imagine himself in Josh’s shoes. He never thought of himself as a lonely person. Involved in sports, he had plenty of guys around him most of the time to share time with. Even after he graduated from college and started a full-time job, he still had time for pickup basketball games with the guys, poker nights with friends and golf on the weekends. It was after he married Anne, his longtime sweetheart, that things began to change. As the demands of work and parenthood increased, Calvin found less and less time to spend with his closest male friends, including Josh.
“I’m not unhappy being with you and the kids,” Calvin told Anne. “It’s just that I rarely talk to another man these days about something that isn’t work-related. There never seems to be enough time to just relax with the guys like I once did. I wonder if that is part of what was going on with Josh. I wonder if that’s one of the reasons he didn’t reach out to any of us.”
An Epidemic of Loneliness
Calvin’s questions point to a growing concern about loneliness that came to light this year with the publication of Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation from the U.S. Surgeon General. The report emphasizes the importance of social connection while also explaining some of the factors that cause us to be less socially connected now than people were 30–50 years ago. It also describes the impact of low social connection (or loneliness) on individual health and well-being. According to the report, “loneliness is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that cause by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity” (p. 4).
The report goes on to say that our ability to rely on one another is crucial to our survival. We’ve had to count on each other for food, water and shelter. In fact, our brains are wired for social connection. We need to be near others. Even though we now have many technological advancements that allow us to live without interacting with others (food delivery, remote entertainment and other forms of automation), “our biological need to connect remains intact” (p. 9).
Adequate Social Connection
So what is sufficient in terms of social connection? Calvin wondered about this as he considered his own life and the depth of his relationships. The Surgeon General’s report offers three qualifiers or characteristics of good social connection: structure, function and quality. They are defined as follows:
Structure: The number of relationships, variety of relationships (e.g. co-worker, friend, family, neighbor), and the frequency of interactions with others.
Function: The degree to which others can be relied upon for various needs.
Quality: The degree to which relationships and interactions with others are positive, helpful, or satisfying (vs. negative, unhelpful, or unsatisfying). (p.10)
Who Would I Call?
Calvin asked himself one simple question: “If something went wrong in the middle of the night such that I needed help, who would I call?”
He asked himself how many people he felt close enough to call to care for his kids if he or Anne had to go to the hospital. He wondered who he might count on to come to his aid. He thought about how many men in his circle of influence would rise to the occasion. He was pretty certain Anne had friends who would help them out, but he was beginning to see how he needed some friends of his own. He also wanted to be the kind of person one of his friends might call if things weren’t going well.
When Calvin attended Josh’s funeral, he saw many of their mutual friends and wondered about how they were processing Josh’s death. He made a point of getting updated on their lives. He put their contact information in his phone. And, where possible, he made a date to get together for coffee or a beer a few weeks later to continue catching up with them.
“I hate that we’ve lost Josh,” he said, “but I’m not going to waste his death. I’m going to let it be a wake-up call to stay connected with my friends. I never want them to think they don’t know anyone to call. And I want to be sure I know someone I can call for myself.”
“Now, more than ever,” he said to Anne when he got home, “we really do need each other.”
Dr. Jennifer L. Baker is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy. She is also the Founder and Director of Good Dads.