Are you connected?
Do you know your neighbors? Can your family access outdoor space easily? Are you connected to resources in your community? Do you prefer fewer friendships with deeper meaning? All of these questions relate to our perception of connectedness and there is no “one size fits all.”
The physical and social structure of America is changing. There are good and bad aspects and multiple factors contributing to this change. One aspect that is clear to public health professionals is that the more disconnected we feel from our community the more our health status declines. A study done by Harvard states that “Social connection improves physical health and mental and emotional well-being (Seppela, 2018).”
What is social connectedness?
“The Full Frame Initiative (FFI) defines social connectedness as the degree to which a person has and perceives a sufficient number and diversity of relationships.” The number, depth and style of those relationships vary. Things like our generation, income, race, religion, and age can all impact how we prioritize and value social relationships. We must remember that the perception of these relationships is a critical aspect in whether one feels connected.
Feeling “connected” can serve as a protective barrier to boost your mood, confidence, immunity and resilience. On the other hand, the lack of connection can have such a negative impact that experts have said it is worse than conditions like smoking, obesity or high-blood pressure (Seppela & American Society on Aging, 2018).
Social Place Connectedness Team
The concept of connectedness has been a topic for years in health agencies serving the public. Places like the British Columbia, Canada have become front runners in creative solutions and our neighbors in Minnesota have been prioritizing it as well. The topic is picking up steam in Winnebago County as well. When analyzing the data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey and Community Health Assessment (page 11), the following indicators related to poor health stood out:
In fact, Winnebago County’s ratings of these three indicators were all over 5% worse than Wisconsin’s average. This data drove the inclusion of all three topics in the 2016-2020 Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP). As groups started digging into the questions of mental health, substance use and social support it quickly became clear they were inter-related. Service gaps, sense of belonging, and social support were all common sentiments relating to connectedness (See figure from the WCDAC report).
Shortly after the CHIP was shared, re:TH!NK (Winnebago County’s healthy living partnership) created a Social Place Connectedness Team (SPCT) to start assessing the local situation more closely. “We added place to our name because we wanted to recognize that connectedness doesn’t always come in the same form,” explained the SPCT Leader, Stephanie Gyldenvand. “Connectedness isn’t just about having friends. Being connected to people impacts our access to opportunity and the decisions we make. Communities that foster strong social support for all residents generally have better access to quality education and jobs, higher income levels, improved housing, and a supportive transportation system (walking, biking, transit, and vehicles).”
If you check out the 2016-2020 CHIP Summary, Social Place Connectedness aims for “residents to be connected and engaged to the places that matter to them.” Proposed strategies are listed and some of those have been worked on more intensely than others. In the first year of the SPCT’s inception there has been a lot of learning about what this topic means and how to bridge the work of existing organizations.
It’s hard to measure connectedness because it looks different for everyone. Community improvements need to have data to clearly measure impact, this helps public health assess, adjust and plan accordingly. Just wrapping our head around how we measure connectedness concepts has proved to be tricky. But the momentum of interest is not dying down.
“This work looks and feels different than any other public health collaboration of digging into Social Determinants of Health,” reflected SPCT member, Alana Erickson. “Hopefully giving it specific priority in the CHIP will drive momentum and focus for a few years, because these factors will definitely take time to improve.”
What you can do
We are becoming hyper-aware of our surroundings because of things like technology, safety measures, and globalism. Yet, we are spending more time communicating via devices and less face to face interaction. “Research shows that the quantity, quality, and diversity of people’s social connections, as well as their perceptions of those connections, all matter.” (FFI, 2013). So whether you get involved in a personal or public way, here are some suggestions for boosting your connectedness:
- support community development designed to engage, improve, and strengthen community connectedness, and improve physical environments (sidewalks, bike lanes, homes with front porches, safety improvements, etc.)
- join a civic group
- meet your neighbors
- join the efforts of re:TH!NK Social Place Connectedness Team – open to any and all community members
- follow community social media pages to learn more about resources and events (like @Winnebago Health)
- increase places and spaces that people can gather in communities (parks, community gardens, shelter/picnic areas, meeting spaces, etc.)