Two major mental health trends, with one unifying theme

Two articles jumped out at me over this weekend. The first was this extremely long and in-depth look at a major suicide study done decades ago, which showed that even the occasional letter from a therapist can get someone through a crisis and significantly reduce suicide rates. The second touches on the topic you’ve all heard me discuss many times before: The rise of depression and suicide in young adults, and the potential role that smart phones may play.

The commonality here is obvious: The importance of relationships in stopping a mental health crisis and maintaining happy lives.

The Huffington Post article tracks the work of Dr. Jerome Motto, who engaged in a massive suicide study. His team tracked tracked mentally ill patients and found that sending letters to them could dramatically reduce suicide attempts, a study that, according to the article, has been backed up by other, similar studies, including this one by Gregory Carter:

Gregory Carter, who ran a psychiatry service in New South Wales, Australia, orchestrated a study in which Motto’s words were typed onto a postcard illustrated with a cartoon dog clutching an envelope in its mouth. The notes were sent eight times over the course of 12 months to patients who were among the hardest to treat. The majority had histories of trauma, including rape and molestation. Some had made repeated suicide attempts. But Carter found there was a 50 percent reduction in attempts by those who received the postcards. When he checked in on the study’s participants five years later, the letters’ effects were still strong. And the cost per patient was a little over $11.

Meanwhile, the USA Today article I noted above places at least some of the blame of the rise in depression among teenagers and young adults on cell phones:

San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge sees a direct link between how much time teens spend on smartphones and troubling signs of mental health distress.

In her 2017 book “iGen,” she cited national health surveys and other statistics to argue that a generation of teens have turned to smartphones as their preferred social outlet, and teens who spend the most time on their screens are more likely to be unhappy.

“What you get is a fundamental shift in how teens spend their leisure time,” Twenge told USA TODAY. “They are spending less time sleeping, less time with their friends face to face. … It is not something that happened to their parents. It is not something that happens as a world event.”

There’s a common connection here, and it’s pretty obvious: People – all of us – need each other.

The simple fact is this: iPhones and social media are build on the premise of building a further connection between people, and while that’s certainly possible, I’d argue that they really just keep us apart. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else, but when we use our phones instead of talking to people face to face, we’re not building anything. It may increase our surface knowledge of someone’s life, but it’s not a substitute for a real interaction. It’s like heaving sugar for dinner instead of a healthy meal – it may fill you up, but there’s nutritious about what you are eating, and eventually, it rots you from the inside.

The article about sending letters to suicidal people backs up this point, in my opinion. People can, apparently, be brought back from the brink by hearing from someone who truly cares. I will not presume to imagine what is going through the mind of someone who is at the point of a suicide attempt. But from what I’ve read – and what I’ve experienced when I was close to that point – suicide isn’t really about dying, per se. It’s about someone wanting to stop their pain. To know that they have a reason to hope. So, if you get an authentic person sending a real message – hey, how are you doing, I’m thinking about you and I care about you – can that fill a void? Can that bring a person back from the edge? Dr. Motto’s research, and that of others, would certainly seem to imply that the answer to that question is yes.

It seems to me that these two articles detailing the rise in suicide and depression have someone in common – humans are losing their innate ability to connect with others, and doing so can solve many of our mental health issues.

As always, I welcome your thoughts. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!