One of the themes that we weave through a lot of our work in Human Services is the importance of creating or recreating a healthy social network for individuals and families that have experienced considerable marginalization, poverty, homelessness and the like.
We also speak about the importance of focusing on wellness instead of illness. If we consider illness to wellness as a continuum as opposed to a either-or construct, then we even further appreciate that achieving wellness is a journey…a process…something that can occur incrementally. We need to move beyond labels and pathology to focus on the individual’s potential and the remarkable ability of the human being to heal – physically, socially, emotionally. Our ability to heal is absolutely remarkable. It is even more impactful if we do not confuse “healing” with “cure” – as they are dangerously considered synonymous by some.
So what is the link between a healthy social network and wellness? Lots. And as you read below, I hope you will become even more convinced that one of the fundamental jobs of support workers is to reduce social isolation by improving access to healthy social networks.
I remember hearing a story – don’t know if it is true – about a doctor who specialized in addressing heart disease and a swami. As a guest of the doctor’s, the swami was asked what the difference was between “illness” and “wellness”. The swami circled the “I” in “illness” and the “we” in wellness.
And it turns out that the swami’s premise is supported by scientific research as well. How a person is situated within a healthy community affects the overall health of the individual considerably. People who exercise in groups (think running groups or gym buddies) are more likely to keep exercising and get healthier together. People who stop using alcohol and other substances are more likely to achieve sobriety for longer with a healthy support network of non-users. In a study of women with breast cancer, those with 10 or more close friends lived longer than those with less than 10 friends. Support groups for psychiatric survivors, cancer survivors and so on thrive because people value the reciprocal feeling of the shared experience in the social network. And the opposite impacts are also true. Fowler’s work proved that having a friend that became obese made you 57% more likely to become obese.
The World Health Organization has also been clear on the importance of healthy social environments and supports, noting that “…social isolation [has] powerful effects on health… the lack of supportive friendships are damaging in whatever area of life they arise. The lower people are in the social hierarchy of industrialized countries, the more common these problems become.” And what problems are we talking about? The WHO indicates higher incidence of heart disease, disability, addiction and other illnesses. Oh, and a much shorter life expectancy.
In 2007 I was part of a research study that looked at the Quality of Life changes amongst people served through Housing First. In the eight QoL indicators looked at there were overall improvements. But the one indicator with the smallest improvements pre- and post-housing? Social interaction. Ever since then I have paid considerably more attention to meaningful daily activities and the need to decrease social isolation while creating social networks. And I am quite emphatic that we need to look at individual interest rather than class. I am sick and tired of social events being planned exclusively for poor people. It ghetto-izes their experience and de-values their ability to integrate into social events shared by others in society – and that is just plain inexcusable.
So what can we do to help promote wellness in social interaction amongst those that we work with? Creating opportunities for people to get out of their housing and into events in the community is important. Leveraging the likes of “Welcome Policies” or similar instruments that allow economically disadvantaged people to access community programs is helpful. Accompanying people to events is great.
And there are lots of phenomenal places to connect to in any community. I love libraries because of the range of programming offered at them. Community centres are great when they have a calendar of social and recreational activities to tap into. Faith groups can also be quite nifty to look into because there are often a number of social events that occur in addition to worship. Support groups, especially for survivors, can also be a terrific way to expand a social network. For clients that are considering AA but don’t know if they are ready to go to a meeting, I like to introduce them to online AA meetings and communities to demystify the experience.
One of the tools that I have used a lot in the past and do a workshop piece on is how to schedule a week of meaningful daily activities with the client. I want them to have activities that take up different parts of the day and most days of the week – and I want these activities to be in addition to other appointments or case plan activities. I purposely set out as many suggestions as possible where there will be a higher degree of interaction with other people rather than solitary activities. Their desire to try new things is want I am trying to nourish and support. And the key to the tool is that I ask people to reflect on the best thing that happened that day and the thing that could have gone better so that we can learn in the support relationship what other ideas we may want to put on the table in the future.
If we focus on the “we” in “wellness” our clients will do better and social networks will be meaningfully (re)created, providing the support necessary for a much more enriching and healthy life.
If you want to learn more about the importance of healthy social networks in supporting people or the connection between social networks and health, contact Iain De Jong at[email protected]