We need people.

I’m going to say it again, so get ready. Here it is:

We need people.

There is absolutely no way around it, when it comes to finding our true voices and being in our healthiest form. When we choose to connect with others and create meaningful relationships with family, peers, and colleagues, we actually feed a basic need within us – the need to belong. Let me go a little bit further: if any one of us chooses to isolate ourselves from society and perhaps the world around us, we are in fact intentionally cutting off the oxygen supply to a significant fraction of our well-being, and at some point will die as a result. Just as disturbing, I continue to see and hear of scores of young people right here in Kelowna and elsewhere that have become socially isolated and in critical need of assistance.

Without question, the most well-known study of this phenomenon came from the work of Dr. Abraham Maslow, a professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin in the fifties and sixties. In his groundbreaking study, he discovered how critically important it was for baby Rhesus Monkeys to have a mother they could hold and cuddle. Without this comfort from another crucial individual, these monkeys were noted to eventually become victims of emotional shock, characterized by actions such as self-clutching and rocking, and even exhibiting some degree of “autistic” behaviours. In adult humans, unintentional studies have been done of former hostages and prisoners of war, where these prisoners themselves were able to describe a feeling of dullness and “grey”, where a noticeable lack of brain function and emotional health led former Vietnam P.O.W. John McCain to describe solitary confinement as “spirit-crushing”, and the most effective form of torture in existence.

In young people I have had in treatment, including locally, the difficulty of social isolation is one that is all too common. For a large variety of reasons, children and teens alike can find themselves feeling hopelessly on their own. Perhaps most surprising is that few of them are truly in a solitary confinement situation, where they connect with almost nobody, and seemingly have zero willingness or ability to participate in healthy social interactions. Rather, it is often the case that they have only “surface level” conversations and relationships with others, never deepening any relationship to a point of depth where authentic caring and connection are able to develop. It is this authentic connection that allows each of us to enjoy a sense of belonging in a critically important way, and when we lack this, we can develop a “numbness” that pervades many key areas of our lives.

In addition, once a person becomes accustomed to having few or no significant social connections, it can be very difficult to break this cycle: having nobody to connect with prevents easily meeting new people who also introduce many different elements into our lives over time, from encouragement to try new activities, to checking out new clothing and new movies as well, to name a few. As we get used to this state of affairs, we often become more frightened of attempting to find new connections, and choose instead the easier option of simply keeping to ourselves, entrenching ourselves further into an unofficial form of solitary confinement. A child in grade four may become an outcast, for example, simply through showing apparent disinterest in meeting and connecting with his peers, even though this disinterest may actually be more rooted in acute fear. Interestingly, physical symptoms such as stomach pains, lack of ability to sleep, or even a tendency to be often ill can be more likely to manifest themselves once a true feeling of being constantly alone has taken root.

If we as parents and those working with young people are fully aware of the costs of feeling isolated, and start to understand the critical nature of supporting those who are unable to create their own healthy connections, we can start to make a massive difference in the health and well-being of children and teens right here in the Okanagan. We can encourage through praising good qualities and achievements, and letting them know that we care. Perhaps most important of all: we can choose to be fully present with young people in our lives, give them our complete attention when we are talking, and honour them by letting them know their words are worthy of being heard and respected, while expecting the same in return. When we share relationship based upon equality, we help build up confidence and emotional health in developing young minds.