MH@H Mental Health

Mental Illness and How We Connect with Others

How do we connect with others? - grap

The ways we can connect with others have changed a great deal since I was a kid in the 80s. Technology is light years ahead of where it used to be, which makes connecting easier in some ways, but mental illness likes to get in the way and put up roadblocks.

How we communicate

Back in the 80s, the only I could communicate with my friends outside of school was if I phoned them. You never knew when a parent might be listening in on the extension, so it wasn’t the greatest way to connect with others. Or, if you were slightly older than me and living in a rural area, you never knew when the neighbour might be listening in on the party line. Eventually, email came into the picture along with dial-up internet, and then SMS text messaging on those oh-so-cool flip phones.

Now everyone seems glued to their smartphone to the point of ignoring the people they’re with (as in the image above), and there are a gazillion different ways to keep in (or perhaps out of) touch. I’m a bit of a dinosaur and am clueless of a lot of the social media apps, but it’s impossible to escape that we’re living in an age of hyper-connectivity. Yet I think a lot of people underestimate how much control we have over our online consumption, and therefore don’t take steps to make sure it’s working for rather than against them.

I spend the majority of each day on my laptop. Most of my communication with other people happens in blog comments. I never used emojis before I started blogging, but now I use them regularly because it’s easier than coming up with words. I like comment conversations because they’re focused – again, easier.

I have an iPhone, but don’t use it much, and I’ve got it set so that it doesn’t notify me of anything other than incoming calls or text messages. At some point, I stopped answering the phone unless it was someone I knew, and that has persisted. With my speech being slow from psychoomotor effects of depression, I really dislike talking on the phone (not that I ever did like it). The only person I talk to sometimes is my one in-person friend; otherwise, we text. It seems like using phones as actual phones seems to be going the way of the dodo bird, which I’m fine with. It annoys me when businesses insist on phone rather than using email.

Genuine connections

Does that hyper-connectivity actually make it any easier to genuinely connect with others? Sometimes yes, but I would guess a lot of the time no. I would also hazard a guess that within the online mental health community, by the very nature of what we’re talking about, we’re connecting on a deeper level than some other online communities. I feel very connected to people on WordPress, and I really value that, but at the same time, there’s a difference between an online connection and an in-person connection (or at least there is for me).

I think if I didn’t have the one or two people I connect with in “real life” (i.e. in person), I would feel very alone in spite of having a tight online support network. Perhaps that’s because it’s only since I started blogging last year that I began really connecting with others in meaningful ways online. Before that my contacts with people were primarily in person, with a bit of phone, text, and email tossed in. It felt strange at first learning how to navigate an online community, but I feel nice and settled in now.

Illness and personality factors

Connecting with others can be a challenge with many types of mental illness. Anxiety disorders can leave people housebound. Depression can turn people like me into isolative hermits, and it’s certainly made it hard for me to be around people. Trauma can make people hyper-vigilant and make it harder to trust others. Both the obsessions and compulsions of OCD can make it hard to function socially. People with borderline personality disorder can get trapped in a cycle of splitting between idealization and devaluation that can threaten interpersonal relationships. The list just seems to go on and on.

Then there’s the issue of introversion vs. extroversion. I’m a natural introvert, and that combined with depression-related isolation makes me steer clear of others as much as possible. I would imagine that being extroverted but also having a social anxiety disorder would be very challenging with the two warring against each other.

How do we make it easier to establish genuine connection, or at the very least basic day-to-day connection? One part is establishing the right balance for each of us in terms of online and in-person connections. If social media is causing a lot of distress, it is possible to function in the world without it.

Negative predictions

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one way for those of us with mental health problems to build confidence and skills in interacting with others, and techniques like behavioural experiments can be a way to take back some control and test negative predictions. Sometimes our predictions aren’t based in reality, and behavioural experiments can make it easier to see this.

Where things get a bit dicey is when our predictions do come true. My standard depressive prediction going into an interpersonal situation is that my mood will worsen and/or I will feel very overstimulated. Much of the time, whether I’m thinking about it or not, that prediction comes true. While it may be that it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy kind of deal, I don’t really feel like it is. It’s possible that I’m in denial, but I do think it’s a legitimate symptom of my depression that it makes it very hard to be around people, and so it’s a question of the extent to which I push myself to just do it anyway – more of a distress tolerance kind of thing.

I think what is universally true for all of us is that we need some form of connection. I’m a huge fan of pets, since they are perhaps the simplest possible connection to others that we can have. Personally I think my focus when it comes to human connection is working on reconnecting with my family. It’ll be a slow process, but I think it’s important to try.

How has the way you connect with others evolved over time? Has mental illness played a role?

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24 thoughts on “Mental Illness and How We Connect with Others”

  1. Depression makes me a hermit too, and that’s only worsened by social anxiety and autism.
    The internet is my main support, but it’s not really that effective. You and a couple of other people comment on my blog, but that’s it really.

    I probably should get pets, but it’s been hard to summon the enthusiasm since I realised how opposed to it my Mum is (and it’s my parents’ house).

  2. I believe a pet is truly what’s missing in my life 😭. I’m yearning for a furry companion, but not sure if I’m ready yet.

    I’m relatively young but I found online communication very intimidating. People in my life didn’t want to talk to me and I experienced some cyber bullying my first go around during the Myspace days. I love texting because I can do it while lying in bed and not having to actually speak to another person. The con is that I had several bouts of misreading the tone of a text message which caused some hurt feelings. Since starting my blog in March 2018 and venturing into social media, it has made it possible to connect with people that make me feel understood. I almost regret not doing it sooner.

  3. That is so great that you’re going to reconnect with your family!! 🙂 Maybe you could find a fun way to do it, like with a question-of-the-day service through email that you each have to answer!! You know, cheesy questions.

    Yeah, I’m so full of neuroses that I glower at people on the sidewalk. If it weren’t for online, I’d be too lonely for words. 🙁

  4. A very interesting one and a complex issue, too, as it’ll be different for everyone. When I was a kid it was all in person or, with my best friend, on the landline to arrange to meet up. As a teenager at 16 I think I got my first mobile (Nokia 3310, classic!) and it became text messages to say hello, phone calls for security with my parents when I went out. Then on to MSN messenger, and emails. Today… well, I don’t really have friends I see in the ‘real world’. They all gave up, got on with their lives, stopped caring unless they wanted something. It hurt. But I found so much compassion and understanding and variety online, where I like to hope I can give back a little support to others in some small way, too. I’m an introvert, but in a social setting I can manage fairly well most times (certainly wasn’t the case when I was younger, too terrified to say more than one word to people). It’s a case of balance, seeing what works for too, not becoming too dependent on technology that you miss out on human, one on one contact. xx

    1. I had the same phone! The online community really has a lot to offer. I’ve also found compassion and understanding here that just don’t seem to happen in person.

  5. I’m fairly light on for tech use to communicate compared with most of the people I know. I didn’t get a mobile phone at all until I was 37, have only had a smartphone for the last year. It’s never really bothered me to switch off for days at a time.

    When I first joined Facebook it was the best thing EVER. I’d always had a very small friend circle and always felt socially out of the loop, didn’t get to hear about parties and other events until afterward, and I’ve never been very good at maintaining long term friendships – and all of sudden I got to go to things, and to actually stay in touch with people I met in real life and develop ongoing friendships with them. It was very much an adjunct to real life though. I never accepted friend requests from people I hadn’t met in person. The downside was that when I was bullied within my hobby group there was no escape, because so much of the contact was via Facebook and then after I left it was very difficult to filter out all the stuff about what a good time everyone else was still having. I gradually unfriended and blocked and finally deleted my account. I currently use phone plus email and an unaffiliated chat app on my computers (neither of which are set up on my phone) for keeping in touch and heavily curate who has access to me via any of those. BIG list of blocked/moderated people.

    I have really embraced online support groups including the blogging community in the last few years though. Don’t know where I’d be without them – I don’t think I would have made as much progress toward being able to join a face to face group activity again without having been part of these groups of people online who get it and who I can back off from for a while if it gets too much, without them feeling offended.

    Overall, I think electronic communication is a godsend for people whose mental health problems lead to difficulties with face to face contact. I just wish that it was easier to manage/filter who and what comes through on social media – but you’re never going to have the level of control you want when the most commonly used apps are “paid for” by means of data harvesting by companies whose commercial needs are in conflict with the users’ personal needs.

    1. We’ve all come to expect things to be free on the internet, but you’re right, we definitely do end up sacrificing control. Since I started blogging I’ve been impressed by how little negative influence there’s been. I’ve blocked a few people, but almost all just spammers.

  6. I did not get my first phone until I was 22, or 23. It was a Motorola phone. A chunky one, which would go on my belt of my jeans. This was just for phoning and texting.

    Now, I am more online, within reason, using a smartphone.
    I still don’t do Facebook. This never worked for me.
    I do Twitter, but only for my benefit. No one knows what it is, because I just follow a few for local news when needed. I’m hardly on it.
    WordPress is my main one and as you have found, it has been a pleasant experience here. I have only blocked the odd annoying spammer.
    I can leave WordPress knowing I can communicate where I left off at any time, whether on my blog or someone else’s. I don’t feel I am expected to be here all the time, which is something I was finding on Facebook.

    Away from blogging, texting and email are my main lines of communication, which with some I communicate this way, we will sort out on meeting up.

    I don’t do apps of any kind. I use the web and log in when I want. My phone is not constantly connected to the internet, so I pop in, or spend half an hour here and there, to up to an hour, depending on what I am doing.

    1. My smartphone is always connected to the web, but I much prefer to not be connected to it very often. I hate answering the phone, and much prefer text/email.

      1. I prefer text or email too, because of my deafness.
        I try and make the odd phone call with mum,but how the call goes depends on my difficulty hearing, but also my mood. So I do feel texting is the safer option.

  7. I only began online connections when I began blogging in 2017. I was very hesitant to let my guard down because of the horror stories I’d seen on the I.D. channel. I never had MySpace and never used email to communicate. Facebook was my first intro into the web and I only had a small group of friends; I have since deleted my account. I prefer a more educational, less of the “Smith’s”, enviroment. I fell in love with the mental health community here on WordPress almost as soon as I let my guard down. I find that when I am connecting in real life, it isn’t genuine. It feels forced and ackward. I am an intorvert as well and find small talk difficult. It makes me uncomfortable because I do not share much in common with anyone. It’s odd because when I was in active addiction I was the complete opposite. I didn’t drink to fit in yet I was some how able to communicate with others more easily. I still maintained a tiny circle but talking to strangers didn’t give me the heebejebees.

    1. I acted much more extroverted when I was in university and drinking a lot. It’s too bad there wasn’t a healthier way of making it temporarily easier to make small talk with strangers.

  8. I need people to connect with, to hug, meet for coffee, its how I recharge. My circle of friends has become smaller and more authentic which I love. That is a direct result of my PTSD. I absolutely love the connection in our blogging world too. It keeps me grounded and validated with my experiences because there is so much relateability happening from all over the world. I feel less isolated with the lens I see the world through from the effects of my trauma because of blogging.

  9. I think I feel sometimes more comfortable with people online discussing my anxiety than with people in real life. I love this mental health community so much 💗 I also love my good friends and family. I think it’s also important to see people because otherwise you also become isolated especially when you have a mental illness.

  10. ue to thew menta\l ill health i have suffered from over the past 20 years from major anxiety, through to depression and personality disorder. All of it makes it hard for me to leave the house and mix with other people. Unfortunately I fall with in the small per centge of peole who medication does not help and therefore often left to deal with it which is where my writing and personal challenges come in helpful.

  11. I have some depression but mostly I am an introvert that do not really like going out in larger groups. On top of which I have recently had my second child 2 mo and a 3yr old at home so spare time is not exactly in abundance. But I would really like to maintain the friendships I have made and be more persistent with my blogging as that has really helped in talking through some post partum blues.

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