There were two prominent suicides in recent headlines – both of them came as a shock to close friends and family. The tragic stories that followed reminded us how hard it is to really know what's going on in another person's life, no matter how close we feel we are to them.
Recently, I had a close friend of mine take his life. This was devastating to me and sent me through a whirlwind of emotions that I was not prepared for. The guilt of not having recognized it coming and the deep sadness that came realizing how alone he must have felt made it hard to process his sudden passing.
I know I’m not alone in this experience. Every year over 44,000 people commit suicide. It's actually the 10th leading cause of death in the United States – and these numbers are rising. These situations have made me think really long and hard about what is contributing to such an increase in loneliness and sadness in a world that seems more connected than ever before.
So much of my work involves helping patients navigate the differences between what our bodies have evolved to effectively handle and what the modern world throws at us. I see the rise in suicides as another divergence between what we were made for and what today’s world is actually like.
Social media and the breakdown of communities are two major contributors to increased loneliness, especially among men. Men are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than women.
Men are less likely to reach out for support, build themselves communities, and tend to think the people they have around them through work and immediate family are enough. When they lose either of those they often feel as though they lost everything connection-wise because they don’t have other networks.
We’ve got to look out for one another – this is why it’s not only important for us to make sure we are fostering healthy relationships and connecting with people in real life, but that we are also encouraging those in our lives to do the same.
Social Media Increases Feelings of Loneliness
While Facebook has done a lot for allowing people all over the world access to different resources, and even support in some cases – Studies continue to show that Facebook fosters the feeling that every man is for himself. Facebook and other social media platforms can raise stress levels and increase perceived isolation.
I think we can all admit that we've all experienced this to some degree. Maybe you saw you weren’t invited out with a group of friends, and it made you feel terrible and left out. There could be a perfectly good explanation for this but because of Facebook all you see are your friends having a really good time without you. This can feel awful.
Or maybe you compare yourself to somebody else and it makes you feel like what you have isn’t enough. Research shows that Facebook negatively affects how satisfied people feel with their lives. One study examined how people recovered from stressful events and found Facebook slowed and inhibited recovery.
I realize that I’m using Facebook as the platform to share this message – the irony is not lost on me. A huge part of functional medicine is finding ways to deal with the discrepancy between how our bodies have evolved and the overwhelming stimuli from the world around us. I see the effects of social media as another assault on our biology and we need tools to navigate it better.
Dealing with the Breakdown of Communities
As a society, we're also dealing with a huge breakdown in communities. We used to live closer to families and even had different generations under one roof. We now live far from our families and don't have traditional communities where we used to get connection like churches and synagogues.
Oftentimes the new and beautiful phase of beginning a family of your own turns out to be one of the loneliest endeavors of a young couple’s life. They can go from having a vibrant social life to suddenly feeling incredibly isolated as they learn to take care of their new baby. Because we don't have tight-knit communities where new parents gather with their extended families and neighbors, they feel alone. Turning to social media during this time can add to all these feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Our bodies and brains crave connection, but because our society values independence and self-reliance above pretty much everything else – we don’t reach out. Because we don’t have the communities naturally built into our lives anymore, we have to be really intentional about creating our communities. And remember that your immediate family, although an incredible support may not be enough. Everyone needs friendship outside their primary partner, children, and work relationships.
We're in this together – let's look at a couple ways we can improve our happiness.
What Can We Do? 7 Ideas for Feeling More Connected
There are few things in this world more devastating and confusing than suicide. A personal experience has really got me thinking about what I can do better in my life to prevent something like this from happening again.
For me, it means reaching out to friends and family more intentionally and finding connection with them face-to-face.
Reach out to friends and family
Texts aren't enough – you can't read body language through texts. Many scientists believe our brains are so big to interpret the subtleties of social interaction. Without actually seeing someone face-to-face it's hard to know how they're actually doing. Because even if you see someone everyday, you can still miss the signs.
If somebody implies that they might be having a hard time (even if it’s without words or asking for help), really check in with them.
Stay connected and make sure loved ones are connected, too
Make sure you're intentionally joining communities – whether it's through church, prayer groups, yoga, or really anything else where you come together and have real conversation. Careful of workout groups because those can make you feel like you’re part of a community, but if you aren’t spending time with those people outside of your workout regimen, you aren't really building the necessary connections.
Encourage your family and friends close to you to do the same. Ben Greenfield wrote a great article about men and loneliness, and how important it is (especially for introverts) to be sure they're connecting often. Your life literally depends on it.
Curate your social media feeds
This is huge! There are a lot of pages and sites on social media that specifically create posts to tap into your brain’s fear buttons. Triggering posts catch your attention because we are wired to notice threats.
Sometimes these are called “clickbait” and they can be really hard to resist because a lot of psychology is used to create them. Intentionally spend a week where you hide things that aren't good for you and like things that promote positive feelings. This will tell the Facebook algorithm what you want to see more of. This includes hiding that relative who is always overly negative and sharing fear-based posts. You can still love them, but protect yourself from damaging posts.
Put down your phone
You already know this but now it's actually time to do it. There's a wonderful app called Moment, which tracks your phone usage and even gives you reminders to put down your phone.
All too often we get in the habit of checking our phone when we don't even mean to. It's easy to do this without realizing it's happening. Check in with your phone use and schedule time where you put your phone on airplane mode.
Get plenty of high quality nutrition
Your body uses food to create neurotransmitters and maintain homeostasis. Research has linked the tryptophan pathway to suicide – I wrote about this around the holidays, you can read that blog here. The big idea is making sure our body has enough of the right nutrients for it to be able to do its job. Your diet really can affect your mood so be sure to fuel with organic whole food diet, an essential for a healthy happy brain.
Get plenty of sunshine
Vitamin D is more than a vitamin, it acts like a hormone. It’s needed for thousands of processes throughout your body – especially those related to happiness. Not getting enough sunshine is why we often hear about seasonal depression – this is very real.
Make sure you're getting plenty of sun this summer to help your vitamin D levels. In the winter, supplement with vitamin D but still try to get sun whenever possible.
Remember, we are all in this together. Not only do we need to look out for ourselves and make sure we're building community, we really need to encourage others to do the same. It's far too easy to isolate today but think we're connected because of things like social media. Connecting online is just isn’t enough – we have to get out into the world and meet with people face-to-face.
Meditate and pray
Meditation and prayer are very effective at helping people feel more connected to God – it actually changes the brain for the better! Personally, knowing God is always there for me is one of the most comforting things when I feel alone. Just talking to God through prayer or being still and listening through meditation can make you feel closer to a higher power. You don't have to start meditating for 30 minutes to get the benefits. Check out my recent article on the subject if you need some help getting started: Be Happier & Less Anxious with 7 Minutes a Day.
Adverse life events in combination with other risk factors, such as depression or other mental illness , may lead to suicide. Suicide, however, is not a normal responses to life stresses. . Most people who experience one or more risk factors do not become suicidal.
Other risk factors include:
- Prior suicide attempt
- Family history of mental or substance abuse disorder
- Family history of suicide
- Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse
- Firearms in the home
- Substance abuse
- Chronic pain or other chronic health issues
- Social isolation
Even if you are not a health professional risk assessment is important if you suspect someone you know is thinking about suicide. Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions such as, “Have you ever had thoughts of hurting yourself? or “Do you have a plan to carry it out?”. Most suicide is related to underlying mental illness or personality disorder so don’t be afraid to enlist the help of a mental health professional who is trained to deal with these types of situations. If someone you know ever tells you of a plan to end their life it is important to call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
Have you had an experience with the sudden passing of a loved one? Please share more below…
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.