I had the privilege to attend NatCon18, the annual conference of the National Council on Behavioral Health. The conference is busy. The agenda and hallways are packed.

There was an interesting juxtaposition playing out in those convention center halls. Plenary speaker after plenary speaker spoke about the plague of loneliness. Meanwhile, over 5,000 conference attendees were packed into foyers, ballrooms, and escalators. As I wandered by myself through crowds of people I was reminded how we can feel deeply lonely while surrounded by people.

Brené Brown, Founder of The Daring Way and thought leader on vulnerability, challenged us to consider four practices of true belonging. In the style of Oprah, we all received a copy of her book, Braving the Wilderness, which outlines the four practices:

  • People are hard to hate close up. Move in.
  • Speak truth to BS. Be civil.
  • Hold Hands. With Strangers.
  • Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.

Dr. Brown reminded us that we are connecting with people who have no one else to talk to and engaging people who have been marginalized and stigmatized. Practicing these strategies can be helpful to both our personal and professional lives.

Former U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, has written about work and what he refers to as the loneliness epidemic. An AARP survey found that 40 percent of adults in the U.S report feeling lonely. Dr. Murthy writes that, “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.” Dr. Murthy reminded us that addressing loneliness for the individuals we work with and for ourselves can not only improve our health but our productivity.

On the first day of the conference, I had the opportunity to present a workshop with my colleague, Melodie Pazolt, with the Washington State Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery Services. We spoke about employment as a social determinant of health and why it is vitally important to encourage employment for people with disabilities who are facing multiple challenges. Myths about the impact of working with a serious mental illness, stigma, lack of social capital and community connection, and misunderstandings about the impact of earned income on disability benefits have contributed to a 90 percent unemployment rate for people with serious mental illness. The SAMHSA SOAR TA Center operated by Policy Research Associates, Inc. has a number of tools to help dispel myths and encourage work. We recognize that work not only brings stability with additional income it also contributes to increased self-worth, better role definition, greater connections to others, additional daily structure and is a critical step in recovery and wellness.

For myself, as I reflect on the 8 Dimensions of Wellness and my own Social Wellness I am challenging myself to strengthen my connections with my friends and neighbors, focusing on genuine connection and true belonging.