We hear of humans variously described as; “social beings”, “social creatures” or even as “social animals”. But what do we really mean when we talk in this way? What is the importance of being connected socially with others? What happens when we aren’t connected in this way? And, in considering topics that occupy much of our modern discourse; why is it important to consider humans as social beings if our goal is to support them with their mental health and even in relation to suicide?
I came to really appreciate humans ‘socially’ while studying social psychology in 2012. This interest originated from frustration in what I recognise now, stemmed from working in an industry (in risk, health and safety) that at the time was fixated on objects (things) rather than subjects (people).
It’s not that objects aren’t important when our aim is to prevent injury, harm or illness, but it seemed at the time that if we only focused on ‘things’, then somehow people would be miraculously protected. When taken to the extreme, it felt at the time like ‘health and safety’ had somehow forgotten that people were involved. I had to move on.
So, three years ago, I moved into a field of work that is all about people. I am privileged now to work in an organisation, Lifeline, that is dedicated to attending to and being with others, particularly at a time of crisis. During this time, I also studied for a Diploma in Counselling. This is where I learned about the importance of attending to others and of a ‘person-centred’ approach to relationships. You can’t do this when your relationship comes via a checklist or a clipboard. I was determined to learn even more.
So twelve months ago, I commenced another post-graduate program, this time through the Australian Institute of Suicide Research and Prevention (AISRAP) at Griffith University.
While this study of suicidology does require the lens of STEM, which is often focused on ‘things’, or at times seeing people as ‘things’ to study, this program extends its thinking beyond a psychological, biological and individualist view of suicide. So even though many models and frameworks developed in suicidology emerge from a reductionist and STEM based worldview, AISRAP encourages a multi-disciplinary approach to learning about suicide.
Our approach at Lifeline also recognises this, as we aim to support people through connecting and being with them, which is underpinned with an evidence informed approach. This connecting occurs through our 13 11 14 phone, chat or text services, or through our many face to face and group programs across Australia.
It can be challenging though, to apprehend people socially, especially as we grapple with the mystery and paradox of being an individual in a social world. Why?
As Graham Long (former CEO of The Wayside Chapel in Sydney’s Kings Cross) describes; we live in a world that encourages a ‘privitisation of self’. This is a world where we are drawn to consider people predominately as individuals and often in the context of mental health and suicide as; “problems to be fixed”.
We see this over and over again when we jump to the all too familiar approach where we seek to mend people through psychology or as we attempt to remedy them through medicine. It’s as-if we can just reduce people down to the simplest molecular level, apply some simple formulaic solution and there you go, back to health. Quite ironically though. in doing this, we may create just the opposite.
As Graham suggests:
Our popular culture preaches the power of one at every opportunity. Most movies begin by revealing an injustice of some sort and then a story unfolds of how an individual saves the day, often with the assistance of that instrument most able to confirm this illusionary idea of the power of one; the gun. Even our attempts to heal social dysfunction mostly leave people more isolated in the process. We give people pills, pamphlets and programs and we form individuals as patients, clients and cases but “One” is lonely; it isn’t human.
As Graham Long goes on to suggest;
“…the minimum unit of a human being is two; there is no such thing as a single human being”.
It can take some time to get your head around this hypothesis. It can be even harder to resist the many temptations that are on offer in the privitisation of self. However, if we can resist these temptations, we may just create an environment where people feel more connected and less lonely. And we know that loneliness is a significant public health challenge and can be a cause of poor mental health. For example a survey conducted by health insurer Cigna found that:
“…widespread loneliness, with nearly half of Americans reporting they feel alone, isolated, or left out at least some of the time. The nation’s 75 million millennials (ages 23-37) and Generation Z adults (18-22) are lonelier than any other U.S. demographic and report being in worse health than older generations.
In addition, 54% of respondents said they feel no one knows them well, and four in 10 reported they “lack companionship,” their “relationships aren’t meaningful” and they “are isolated from others.”
Douglas Nemecek, MD, Cigna’s chief medical officer for behavioral health, said the findings of the study suggest that the problem has reached “epidemic” proportions, rivaling the risks posed by tobacco and the nation’s ever-expanding waistline.”
Graham is not alone in his thoughts on this. In their recent book, Haslam et. al. (2018) The New Psychology of Health, propose that;
“…this book moves beyond the stereotyped terms of debate about whether health is a product of genes, environment, or chance. Instead it argues that what lies at the heart of individuals’ health is the nature of the social connections that exist between them and the sense of shared identity that these connections both produce and are produced by.”
One of the authors is prominent social psychologist Alex Haslam, who, in explaining why it is that we are so easily and quickly seduced into this individualistic view of people, penned an paper titled Unlocking the Social Cure, in which he suggests that;
Part of the reason for this, we suggest, is that the way our discipline has traditionally oriented to matters of health (and much else besides) is by seeking to understand the psychology of individuals as individuals, when to tackle challenges of social isolation we need instead to understand how people function as group members. As the title of our new book suggests, this requires us to develop a ‘new psychology of health’. At the core of this new psychology is a recognition that people’s sense of self – and the perceptions and actions that flow from it – is often dictated at least as much by their group memberships and an associated internalised sense of social identity (a sense of ‘we-ness’) as it is by their personal identity as individuals (a sense of ‘I-ness’).
There are others too who we may learn from when it comes to humans as social beings. This includes noted author on the topic of addiction and mental health, Johann Hari. In both of his books Lost Connections (on depression) and Chasing the Scream (on addiction), he writes of how critical our social connections are if our aim is to support people who are gripped by addiction and challenged with depression. Indeed, in his book Chasing the Storm, Hari offers that:
“The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection.”
So if we accept these arguments, and if we can get our heads around the idea that there is no such thing as a single human being, we may also accept that it is through the creation of community, as opposed to solely individualistic approaches, as another way toward a healthier society, and the individuals that live within it?
But what is community?
Peter Westoby provides insights on this in his book Creating Us; Community Work With Soul, where he suggests:
“Community is instead something that emerges, as a felt experience, or a social phenomenon, when people create it together: when they are in relationship within one another, drawn together by a shared concern (reading, refugee issues, reconciliation, wanting to garden and so forth). It might occur in neighbourhoods, villages, towns, places; but community is not synonymous with those words.”
In concluding this piece, the hope is that it has prompted the reader to consider people as social beings, existing in community with others. If this has sparked interest for you and you’re considering how this may be relevant when supporting people with their mental health or even suicide, perhaps these questions from Haslam et. al. (2018) may be useful:
· Why do people who are more socially connected live longer and have better health than those who are socially isolated?
· Why are social ties at least as good for your health as not smoking, having a good diet, and taking regular exercise?
· Why is treatment more effective when there is an alliance between therapist and client?
As this paper explores concepts and ideas associated with Suicide, if this triggers distress, it may not be for you. If this paper does cause concern, within Australia you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or for outside of Australia, a list of support hotlines is listed HERE.
About the Author:
Robert Sams is a current student at Griffith University and the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention (AISRAP) currently completing the post-graduate Masters of Suicidology program. Rob is also has post-graduate qualifications in the Social Psychology of Risk (ACU) and an undergraduate degree in Health and Safety (University of Newcastle).
Rob has been involved with Lifeline, an Australian organisation focused on suicide prevention and crisis support service, since 2012. Initially this was as a volunteer and from 2017 in paid leadership roles. Rob authored his first book, Social Sensemaking in 2016 and has a particular interest in a community-led approach to suicide prevention and he proudly lives on the land of the Awabakal people in Newcastle, NSW.
This paper is a reflection from Rob’s first year of studies in Suicidology.
· Twitter: https://twitter.com/rob_sams
· LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robert-sams-6b171110/
· Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
· Web: www.dolphyn.com.au
Further Reading and References:
Brenner, D. (2016) Human Being and Becoming. Brazos Press. Michigan, USA.
Buber, M. (1958). I and Thou. Simon and Schuster. New York.
Ellul, J. (1964) The Technological Society. Random House of Canada Limited. Toronto.
Haslam, C., Jetten, J., Cruwys, T., Dingle, G., and Haslam. A. (2018) The New Psychology of Health; Unlocking the Social Cure. Routledge. London.
Joiner, T.E. (2005) Why People Die by Suicide. First Harvard Press paperback edition. United States of America.
O’Connor, R. C., & Pirkis, J. (Eds.). (2016). The international handbook of suicide prevention. Wiley & Sons Ltd. West Sussex.
O’Connor, R. C., & Nock, M. K. (2014). The psychology of suicidal behaviour. The Lancet Psychiatry, page 73-85. (n.d.).
O’Connor, R. C. & Kirtley, O.J. (2018) The integrated motivational-volitional model of suicide behaviour. Phil. Trans. R. Sac. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0268
Westoby, Peter, Leunig, Michael, & Lubett, Tania (2016) Creating Us: Community Work with Soul. Tafina Press, Lismore Heights, N.S.W.
 There is more that could be written about ‘protection’ and our approaches to this, but there is no space in this piece for that.
 Of course, there are many benefits to supporting people in mental health through psychology and medicine, especially those with a diagnosed mental illness who are supported through psychological and medical interventions. However, the point being made in this piece, is that there are other approaches, that often work alongside psychology and medicine that may support people with their mental health. That is community approaches.