To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, a co-investigator from the Community Navigators study explains why reducing loneliness through community connections may be key to recovery from anxiety and depression.
Life can be so chaotic; so upsetting; ever so lonely. Is it any wonder then that we feel so anxious about taking the next steps when forming friendships or engaging in social activities?
Not surprising either that so many of us end up suffering from a state of anxiety – a wide spectrum of emotions, fears and self-doubt.
Does anxiety have any benefits?
Now, feeling a little anxious is no bad thing, is it? It could provide the adrenaline you need before taking in an exam, participating in a sporting event, or giving an interview for a job.
For some, a state of calmness, tranquillity and order places you in a stronger position to give your best. Anxiety, based on a fear of failure, is unlikely be a positive state; well not for most of us, in my opinion.
Anxiety is stifling, restrictive and so doom-laden. It was a common trait underpinning, and a significant barrier resonating through, the UCLH and McPin Foundation-led Community Navigator Study that I was privileged to be involved in from 2016-2018.
Anxiety is not uniform in its origins, dimensions or impact.
Reducing isolation and loneliness
Our goal in the study was to reduce levels of social isolation and loneliness among participants that had a history of significant mental health intervention (including sectioning).
Our engagement with them would involve working together, in a person-centred manner, to develop connections in the community, such as with other places, people and activities.
So many observations, insights and metrics arose from the study, which involved 50 individuals over 18 months, across three inner London boroughs.
Anxiety is not uniform
One that I found particularly true is that anxiety is not uniform in its origins, dimensions or impact.
For example, there was an individual who was anxious about being seen out in his area. He needed someone to shadow him out of his home, so conscious and anxious was he that that his neighbours would see him venturing out.
Engaging with him, gaining his confidence, and emboldening within him a resolve and positivity over time saw a major change in his outlook to life.
Though there were walking groups local to him, we travelled to the borders of Essex to join him up with one there.
He made lots of connections through this activity, and was part of several walking groups by the time our intervention with him had ended – as well as a talking group, a book circle, a music session and a football supporters club.
Normally so dapper and so eloquent; today, unshaven, unwashed in his shorts, T-shirt and slippers.
Living in the eye of the storm
Then there was the gentleman whose diary was incomplete if every line didn’t have activities to do, groups to attend and people to meet – he needed connections all day long. Everything was documented to the nth degree to avoid any gaps, including travel time, short breaks for lunch and walks.
Any changes, any delays and, God-forbid, any cancellations on his plans were difficult to manage at best – overwhelming, even tortuous, at worst.
One particular occasion still resonates with me several years on.
It was a Monday morning, overcast and gloomy – a bit like the atmosphere that greeted me as I trudged through the cluttered passageway into his living area.
Normally so dapper and so eloquent; today, unshaven, unwashed in his shorts, T-shirt and slippers. Quiet, eerily so.
Moving on - so easy to say, so easy to make a value judgement on, unless you are in the eye of that storm yourself.
Our plan, agreed the week before, was that we would go to a synagogue together to gauge what services and groups he could join. Most especially he would be meeting a family he might be able to spend the Sabbath with, as it was a particularly lonely and difficult time for him.
‘Zubair, you know I have nothing to do afterwards. Nothing for two hours. Nothing,’ he said.
It turned out the local community centre had contacted him that morning, advising him that they were flooded and would be closed. The arts and crafts group, the central part of his day, would not be running.
His levels of stress and anxiety were quite alarming for something which, for most of us, is so easily overcome, usually just by moving on.
Moving on – so easy to say, so easy to make a value judgement on, unless you are in the eye of that storm yourself.
A strong coffee, some calming words and a ‘time filler’ in the form of a new exhibition at The British Library during his ‘gap period’ did the trick! He was buoyed and energised again. That sense of emptiness no more – but for how long, and what about next time?
Make the connection
The main ethos of the Community Navigator programme was that it is individualised, not one size fits all.
A uniformity in approach and design to support individuals with conditions such as anxiety, means that we lose that essential ingredient of being person-centred.
With this as the driver, our study showed the importance of social connections in engaging and supporting individuals at differing stages of recovery from mental health challenges associated with loneliness and isolation, such as anxiety.
Anxiety. No ordinary condition. No ordinary solutions. Make the connection.
The follow-on from the Community Navigators study – Community Navigators2 – is currently underway, looking at the impact of rolling the programme out in more locations across the UK.