The power of human connections could transform mental health | AspenTimes.com

The power of human connections could transform mental health

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"Changing Brains, Changing Lives Symposium" aims to reinforce the importance of connections

By Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by Aspen Strong

The power of connection has the ability to transform societies if people are willing to open themselves up to recognizing that mental health impacts each and every one of us.

At the "Changing Brains, Changing Lives Symposium," the topic of connection is the theme at both an intensive workshop and a community panel discussion hosted by Aspen Strong, a nonprofit that promotes mental hygiene and connects people to mental health resources in the Roaring Fork Valley.

"Recognizing that we all need help along this life journey is a sign of strength and tool for resilience," said Christina King, founder and executive director of Aspen Strong. "With that said, my first piece of advice is to reach out — regardless of whether you understand what it is you are struggling with — and ask for someone you trust to listen. Connecting to others meets a biological need and allows us to feel a sense of belonging."

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Here are some of the reasons Aspen Strong believes that reducing mental health stigma in the Roaring Fork Valley needs to be a community approach that begins with connection.

Humans need connection     

Connection isn't just something that helps us feels good, it's actually a practical strategy for addressing mental health challenges because it supports our neurophysiology to stay in relaxed states so that we can grow, learn, and evolve, said Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, author of New York Times Bestsellers "The Whole-Brain Child" and "No-Drama Discipline." Bryson is the special guest speaker at the Oct. 24 symposium.

"As mammals, we are wired to be connected so that when we face danger and adversity, we have people who will help us stay alive," Bryson said. "It's our connections with our caregivers that allow our brains to develop the capacity for self-regulation and empathy. How we make decisions, how our whole frontal lobe functions — it's related to the quality of the connections we receive."

Strong, reliable connections help regulate our bodies, moods and allow us to not suffer alone, Bryson said.

"When we have significant adversity and we don't have support or connections, what could be tolerable can turn into toxic stress that actually impacts our physical health as well as our mental health," she said.

Community involvement leads to positive change

“The most successful engagement efforts to decrease stigma and encourage healthy mental hygiene practices take a community-centered approach, according to research done by Aspen Strong”

"A community prevention model is known to create a more inclusive and holistic approach, letting people know it is okay to talk about mental health and reach out for help, because, as we also learned, mental health struggles are not just an individual’s problem," said Emily Supino, operational director at Aspen Strong.

This approach allows people who are struggling to feel comfortable enough to open up, Bryson said.

"I think just normalizing emotion and giving people the safety and the freedom, and creating a culture around connection so that people don't have to be alone in their adversity, is going to be huge for us as a society," Bryson said.

Rising suicide rates

The number of suicides in Colorado has been increasing since 2009, according to the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention, part of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Colorado has the 10th highest suicide rate in the country, at 20.4 suicides per 100,000 people. In Pitkin County, the average is 19.9, while the national average is 13.4.

"If the answer to depression and anxiety was a logical, easy solution, we would not have the high numbers of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues," Bryson said.

Supino said there are many theories about why mountain towns are so heavily impacted by mental health issues and suicide. Some of them include high cost of living, job scarcity, financial stress, a "party-hard" culture that can lead to substance abuse, and a lack of connection.

"Many people move to mountain towns without families and support networks, so that lack of connection may lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation," she said.

Education needs to happen everywhere

Education on mental health and social and emotional well being supports our emotional literacy allowing one to find the language to communicate their mental health needs.

Educating the community about mental health resources and challenges isn't the job of one organization or entity. It must happen at home, at work, in schools and at social functions.

"The first change that needs to take place is taking back the term 'mental health' — have it imply the same thing as physical and dental health," Supino said, adding that the three health categories need to include prevention, self-care and strength.

Building emotional literacy and speaking mental health

How do we engage in this conversation, know how to respond emphatically, and then know what to do if someone replies that they’re struggling?

"This is hard to do, but with increased education and awareness, simple tweaks in how we communicate and connect with one another can start breaking down the stigma and encourage people to open up or seek help," Supino said. "Businesses, community organizations, and government play a crucial role in this change. By incorporating mental hygiene in their organizational structure, they are showing employees and community members that 'hey, we support you, are here for you, and encourage you to get help if needed.'"

Community connection campaign

The symposium community event is partially funded by Pitkin County’s Be Well initiative, which supports a larger mass media campaign that is focusing on connection, mental health prevention and education. The campaign’s focus is threefold:

  1. Connection to self: Helping individuals increase their emotional literacy, learn signs and symptoms of particular issues, and understand when they may need help.
  2. Connection to others: Helping to increase empathy by giving people tools for engaging one another in compassionate, supportive ways.
  3. Connection to resources: Providing a safe, anonymous platform for individuals to research particular issues, connect with others who may be experiencing those same issues, and connect with mental health providers and organizations throughout the valley.

Find local mental health resources

You are one click away from a safe, anonymous, and confidential place for people to access tools for the mind. Visit http://www.aspenstrong.org/connect

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