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Actually, It Does Take a Village: Social Connection Will Never Be Obsolete

February 15, 2019

This article originates with a personal experience. I recently made a brief trip to a supermarket. I was returning to my car and several feet away from me was a woman putting her groceries into her SUV. I was only vaguely aware of her. She had her grocery cart, with her roughly 2-year-old daughter in the cart, next to her vehicle as she unloaded groceries.

As I approached, the cart started to slide away down the slightly sloped parking area. I was lost in my own thoughts, not really aware of what was happening. At some point I became acutely aware, then alarmed, and then physically engaged. I grabbed the cart and stopped a potentially awful event. I can assure you that I am no hero, but the potential for a damaging outcome here is real.

What motivates this article is what came next. The woman said to me, with no particular emotion, “they should put brakes on these things.” She never said thank you. I drove home and became more bewildered. What a strange event. What to think about it.

I went through an hour or so of demonizing her. I struggled to make sense of what happened. Was she a bad parent, a depressed person, a victim of some sort? What could motivate such a cavalier response to my saving her daughter from disaster? I finally came to think this: We live in a community, and I was grateful that I was there to save the day in some small way.

I then came to hear the phrase in my head, “it takes a village,” and I knew Hillary Clinton made the phrase famous in a book she wrote. I never read the book, and I decided that I did not need to know more than the title since it fit the circumstances so well. This woman could have had her daughter badly injured, but I grabbed the cart. Whatever her lapse may have been, I am glad that I was there. We need a community to help us all succeed.

My motivation for this article is that I am a psychologist rejecting any need for a psychological understanding of this event. Things happen for all sorts of reasons, and yet we all need support at both intimate and interpersonal levels. I would never even recognize the woman in this encounter again, and I am sure that she would not recognize me. My sense is that she barely understood the crisis that was unfolding for a few seconds in her family’s life.

One key recognition from this event is that we should step away from the sense that we control all the important outcomes in our lives. Instead, we should acknowledge that our social connection is a huge part of our everyday success and happiness. We should realize that technology will never replace that, not 10 or 100 years from now. Even social media, praised by some for connecting us in unique ways, cannot replace real human contact.

Another insight emerged from this related to my professional life. I have been promoting digital healthcare solutions for several years, and I believe they are powerful new resources for helping millions of people. Yet there is no replacement for a uniquely private and personal conversation, along the lines of, say, a psychotherapy session. I am a psychotherapist. You may learn important coping skills online, but you will never experience the emotion of another person expressing empathy for your issues in a non-judgmental way as you might in a psychotherapy session.

Technology is great, but we should never lose a focus on psychological solutions based on social connection. Millions of people benefit from support groups, peer counseling, and patient advocacy every year. We need to continue to innovate in the area of social connection just as intensely as we innovate with technology-based solutions.

We can change our minds based on information or emotion. While either digital or social connections can change us with information or emotion, there is no doubt that social connections have an advantage for impacting our emotions. We should never lose sight of this in our strategic planning for new healthcare solutions. Change in lifestyle is very hard, and emotionally-driven change should be studied and distilled.

We often discuss the scalability of digital solutions. To be sure, making a healthcare platform available 24/7 with complete confidentiality will draw many people to explore its resources, and many of those people may be doing little else to improve their health status. A vast number of people in need will not visit a behavioral healthcare professional due to cost, inconvenience, transportation or stigma for many generations to come.

However, we can also scale up the availability of empathic, non-professional people who can help others make important choices and changes. Helpful people come with both advanced and less advanced degrees. The research that I did at PacifiCare and ValueOptions showed that the best outcomes do not connect with the most advanced education. Good results don’t align with any specific demographic or variable. Some people have a healing impact and others don’t.

The people who have the greatest healing impact probably did not learn this in school. As the chief clinical officer for PacifiCare Behavioral Health, I once assembled an all-day meeting with the top 25 clinicians within Los Angeles in terms of verified clinical outcomes. We learned little – they were all very different people with a variety of clinical orientations. The woman with the best clinical outcomes of all was previously a kindergarten teacher. She liked to draw with her patients.

In recent years the behavioral healthcare field has moved from a two-dimensional foundation in medication and psychotherapy to a three-pronged solution that includes telehealth and digital solutions. However, it is important to acknowledge that the support and understanding of non-professionals can be an increasingly important part of this picture, delivering widely scalable access and impressive outcomes. We should accept a truth that will probably never change—it takes a village. Be sure your village includes plenty of people who care about others and can establish healing relationships.

Ed Jones, PhD, is senior vice president of the Institute for Health and Productivity Management.

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