“Social distancing” is a major misnomer. We’ve seen a lot of backlash recently in our communities about this vague and counterproductive term. We need to remain socially close now more than ever, even though we must remain physically distant, if possible, for our health. But to ask people to keep socially distant is dangerous when community support is so crucial for mental and physical health.
Our alumni and other community members have voiced concerns that the isolation conjured up by the term “social distancing” is particularly damaging to those of our patients in recovery who rely on community to stay on track. Supported by a wealth of scientific data, social connection and a feeling of community is a major predictor of a person’s ability to maintain a healthy recovery from substance use or a mental health disorder. On the other end of the spectrum, an equally large amount of scientific research states that people in isolation not only suffer significant mental health concerns, but also other mental and physical consequences result, such as cognitive decline and increased risk of heart disease.
Community Social Support Is Critical to Recovery from Addiction and Mental Health Disorders
Our patients and our alumni tell us all the time about the enormous difference that community makes in their recovery. That’s why group counselling is, and will remain, a cornerstone of our mental health and addiction treatment programs. Our patients learn from each others’ experiences, share each others’ burdens and pains, and provide support to one another during an overwhelming time in their lives where they are being forced to change. While we applaud those who achieve recovery alone, most people need robust social support to make significant gains in overcoming addiction or mental health disorders. The effectiveness of aftercare support groups for successfully maintaining long-term recovery from addiction is also backed by scientific research.
Social Distancing Is a Terrible Term
The term “social distancing” is incredibly vague and lacks any clear directive. Many have argued as of late that simple and direct instructions such as “stay home” and “avoid public spaces” and “maintain a 2-metre distance from others” are all far more understandable and effective than the lazily abstract and academic imperative to “practice social distancing.” This phrase meant nothing a matter of weeks ago, and now, it’s all we hear on the local and national news. We find the phrase incredibly problematic and alienating, and we think it’s crucial to think about this time in terms of the connections we can form and maintain despite having no spaces to physically congregate.
There is opportunity in every challenge, and we believe in looking at productive ways to maintain social closeness. Here, we turn to the online world, which connects people across the world—and now, across the street—which allows us to be close while we must remain physically distant for our own physical health. This is the opportunity to catch up with our loved ones who share our living space. This is the time to reconnect on email or social media or video conference with pen pals, long-time friends, and relatives who we miss. While some of us may not be working while others work from home, we need to come together in as many constructive ways as we can. Now is not the time to disconnect from others. We can choose to turn away from things that aren’t serving us, such as sensational and worrisome media, and turn towards online group meetings and alternative ways to get together in this digital world.
Be Mindful of Your Media Consumption
We do recommend that people are mindful of their triggers. If you’re feeling lonely, worried, sad, or desperate, it’s necessary to honour those feelings and be courageous while you act accordingly. We recommend that you be strict with yourself when consuming certain media—especially social media. If you feel triggered, we suggest you turn off the news for a moment and take a break from the information overload. Our brains are sponges and absorb more than we consciously know. Immersing ourselves in the constant negative messaging of climbing death tolls, infection rates, and escalating emergency measures can have serious negative consequences for our mental and emotional state.
Some counselling experts have recommended avoiding reading or watching the news right before bed or right after getting up in the morning, and we have to agree. We’re cautioning our communities to observe a strict media diet in these situations: consume enough to be informed, but avoid going down the proverbial “rabbit hole” of internet media consumption. One of the best antidotes to anxiousness and worry created by too much media is to maintain meaningful connections.
Creating Online Social Communities for Support
There’s no question that we all need to do our part in this public health crisis. We need to avoid panic buying and we need to follow our directives from our local public health authorities. We need to only go to the doctor or hospital if we’re truly sick.
However, for our physical and mental health, we also need to support each other and connect. My neighbours on my street usually gather in March to visit each other, share food and company, and celebrate. This year, everyone went outside on their lawns and celebrated from a distance. There was music and shouted conversations and general cheer, and a street-wide WhatsApp group created for our neighbours to commiserate, share tips and strategies, and to share which groceries stores were stocked with toilet paper and necessities.
My physical community found a home online, and we anticipate that many other communities will create online spaces as well. At EHN Canada, for example, we’ve moved our alumni and outpatient group events to our online platform, Wagon, to help our patients and our alumni community retain the ever-essential sense of togetherness that help everyone deal with life’s challenges (such as the present situation) and heal.
5 Phrases That Are Better than “Social Distancing”
The following phrases do a much better job than “social distancing” at capturing the behaviours, values, and qualities, such as community, connection, and mutual support, that are important during times like these for both physical and mental health.
(1) “Virtual community”
We have communities all over the internet in many shapes and forms. We can continue to build these communities and form new ones, including taking offline groups and recreating them in a digital environment.
(2) “Physical distancing while maintaining social closeness”
This one is self-explanatory, and therefore easily more useful and constructive than the term “social distancing.” This phrase also emphasizes the positive aspect of closeness, instead of focusing on the negative effects of distance that we all experience.
(3) “Apart but connected”
The fact that I can video call my friend in Chicago allows us to connect with each other even though we are physically far apart. That’s the magic of digital—let’s stay connected.
(4) “Online gathering”
While we can’t gather in person, there is no reason why we can’t gather virtually.
(5) “Doing our part”
Emphasizing community means that we’re all working together to protect the most vulnerable members of our communities. The more of us that participate in physical distancing, the better it will work.
Come Together and Get Support in Our Free Online Support Group Sessions
For those of you who need support, we recognize the need to come together, and we’re happy to lead the way. In these times, we’re pleased to offer free online support group sessions for people with mental health and substance use disorders, as well as their families, counsellors, doctors, and employers. This is an opportunity to benefit from the guidance of a licensed addictions counsellor and come together with others who share similar struggles. It’s a place to voice your concerns about the current situation in which people can feel isolated, triggered, anxious, or in danger of relapse. We need each other now more than ever, and all we have to do to connect is to reach out through our screens. We’re dedicated to leading the way and helping our communities get through this pandemic. To learn more and register for our new Online Support Group, click here.
The Government of Canada’s “social distancing” page provides a detailed explanation and suggestions regarding how to practice physical distancing.