Battling our Epidemic of Loneliness

Eight years ago I wrote my first blog post here. The topic was silos; how cities and towns isolate themselves and competing against each other to the detriment of both – while cooperation would be mutually beneficial. Silos aren’t limited to civic strategy and geographic jingoism though. They’re everywhere.

Silos are easy to create. They allow us to compartmentalize. We can separate things, put them aside and go on. Diving deep, finding connections and trying to wrap our heads around how everything affects each other is messy, ambiguous and difficult. However making the connections between disparate issues very often shines light on them – producing clarity. In a strange way this inter-connectivity simplifies. Even though we say we want to simplify things – we actually go to great lengths to complicate them. As Einstein said: “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.” But genius takes work – work we seldom undertake … especially when silos are available.

We deal with civic and social issues at the most digestible level. We treat symptoms rather than underlying causes … creating even more silos. And with this come more policies, laws and power struggles that attempt to deal with them. This is what make bureaucracy so inefficient. It’s filled with unconnected silos all fighting over scarce resources, attempting to address symptoms rather than the root causes that often are connected themselves. Progressive civic problem-solvers call these often neglected root causes, social determinants. They’re buried deep and confronting them seldom produces the quick short-sided fixes politicians and policy-makers feed on. They’re indirect and obliquitous. But ironically these root causes are often obvious to those outside the confines of the echo chambers and ivory towers of public policy governmental malaise. For example: hungry kids will have problems performing well at school – yet so many remain exactly that – as year after year policy makers concentrate instead on the reform de jour, or worse yet threaten school shutdowns for those that under-perform.

The one thing …

What if there was one thing we could focus on that could simultaneously address many of the societal ailments that we encounter and at the same time fixed an important issue its own directly.

Every day there’s a never-ending stream of research and reports detailing the ailments affecting America. But seldom do we hear about any solutions for these ailments; isolated success stories yes – but not overarching policy, governmental or societal.

Obesity: No matter how many alarms are set off – the nation keeps getting fatter. It doesn’t matter, young or old – obesity numbers keep rising, regardless the efforts being attempted (and I say that liberally).

Dementia: Our current elderly, living longer and often alone, have become a generation plagued by dementia and Alzheimers. This is compounded by the fact that most look to doctors and the healthcare system to fix a problem there is no “pill” for.

Addiction: The chronic stresses of today’s non-stop, uncertain lives makes coping with it all a major undertaking … and too much for many. Combine this with the knee-jerk over-prescribing of pharmaceutical quick-fixes and we’ve created a culture who inevitably ends up addicted to whatever they can get their hands on.

Child care issues: No matter what our socioeconomic level is, we all seem to struggle with the same plight – adequate and available child care. Dual-income households as well as single parents find that finding that place to stash their kids during the day while they work – anything but easy.

Finding not just work, but rewarding work: Unemployment is at historical lows, but how many people are happy in their jobs. Many are either underemployed or just unfilled working for “the man.” In addition – college, once the panacea for future employment dilemmas, has turned into a nightmare of student loans for many.

Polarizing political views: Politics is no longer just a lightening rod for uncomfortable Thanksgiving family gatherings. Fueled by the election of Donald Trump and his daily stream of partisan controversy … the United States is anything but that. His divisive anti-social behavior has firmly taken root in our neighborhoods as social engagement has become replaced by isolation and an obsession of cable news.

Too often we look at these aliments in isolation – disconnected from each other. It’s as if obesity has no affect on why we hate our neighbor because he’s a Republican. But actually they can be connected. As are not finding rewarding work and why too many Americans have problems with quality child care. Our goal must be to find what ties all these things together.

Isolation, Illness … And Hate

Recently several articles have surfaced on the detrimental health effects of loneliness, whether it be physical or psychological. Everything always seems worse when we’re sick and there’s no one there to lean on for support. This is especially the case in rural areas where the sparse population adds to the isolation. This condition isn’t exclusive to the geographically remote either. The same can even be said in urban areas when we feel isolated in our communities because our social or political views, or just don’t have anyone emotional close to us anymore.

Can these health detriments due to isolation be a breeding ground for hate? The outsized elderly vote for Donald Trump and his message of division and national isolation makes a case for it. Sadly I’ve never seen hate rise to the levels of today. Why is this? Could it be the source of it is the unprecedented level loneliness and isolation in America? Maybe. Hannah Arendt in “The Origins of Totalitarianism, her chronicle on the rise of Nazism makes a parallel argument decades ago.

Terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other… Therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together…; isolated men are powerless by definition.

Has America turned into a nation of isolated, sick and angry people – waiting impatiently for someone to ride in on a white horse to save them from their lives of misery  – no matter the consequences? Politics is killing us, literally. If all this isn’t enough to make us wake from our cerebral stupor … then what will?

We need to call it like it is. It isn’t a preference. Only in extreme cases is loneliness a choice. It’s an epidemic … like the plague. Very few wish it upon themselves. This isn’t just another city or county budget item like a roundabout or off-ramp to pacify some well-heeled real estate developer. Loneliness is a scourge that is literally killing our country.

Lonely people probably aren’t just a damper on the national morale; they’re likely to be a strain on national productivity and health-care systems, too. The bodies of lonely people are markedly different from the bodies of non-lonely people. Prolonged loneliness can put one at risk for chronic health conditions, exacerbate various health conditions, and ultimately put us at increased risk for premature mortality. (What Loneliness Does to the Body)

Loneliness is a problem that is getting worse too. We are living longer. More and better healthcare is keeping us physically alive longer. Technology, while wonderful for some people, myself included – isolates (emotionally and socially) those who aren’t connected.

We’re geographically separated, and especially in small towns, it’s getting worse. Many parts of the country are losing young talent., such as rural areas that are not keeping up with the technological revolution. This talent are the exact people who would normally be around to keep elderly family members company. And our traditional institutions (churches, fraternal clubs, etc.) no longer hold the same attraction as they did in our parents time. The decline in bowling leagues, the moniker of the famous book on community sociology by Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone – exemplifies the decay of the American social fabric. These are just a few of the reasons, and I’m sure we all can offer up others specific to our own situation too.

Pushing back …

“Our true destiny is a world built from the bottom up by competent citizens living in solid communities, engaged in and by their places.” – David W. Orr

What if the answer was as easy as just getting people back together again; physically engaging with each other. What if we as a society made a concerted effort to re-establish civic and social gathering places. And what if our social policies focused on physical engagement with one another. This engagement would create serendipitous civic resource maximization through synergy – a synergy we often didn’t even know was available to us all the time.

What if a renewed obsession with engagement put us in a place even better than we’ve ever had. By realizing that loneliness is a devastating social disease we can attack it by creating new norms of engagement and awareness. We can forge a new society – one evolved to be better positioned for inclusion and self-transcendence, focusing beyond just our own needs. We would be creating communities where connectiveness and well-being was how we measured themselves, not just jobs and obtuse economic activity often distorted through a one-dimensional lens of irrelevant statistics.

Imagine meeting with a fellow group of customers from the local hardware store to create a small community garden, only to find out the woman working the plot next to yours has a daughter who just moved back in town after college and is looking for a part-time job. And you just happen to be looking for someone to watch you daughter after preschool. A simple engagement at the local hardware store turns out to be a solution for fresh food and childcare.

Imagine coming together with your neighbors to rebuild the local grade school playground, including the one who you would never talk to due to his political ideology. Working side-by-side with him you find out he is an expert in the exact software program you been needing help with for weeks. Now that freelance opportunity you’ve been struggling with can now become a reality.

Imagine grabbing your teenage kids and hauling them down to your local coffee shop for its elderly outreach project. Instead of just brooding around the house every weekend – your lovely offspring are making connections, and changing lives, with those who have literally built the very town they live in. Your son is so taken by a 90 year-old gentleman he has befriended, he decided to stay in town for college and help the coffee shop expand their outreach program … and regularly stay touch in touch with his surrogate grandfather.

Community 3.0, Front Porches … a Call To Action

How do we makes this happen though? How do we transform our communities into ones where opportunities to engage are around every corner? How do we break the habit of the couch, cable news and waiting for “the man on the white horse” to ride in to save us?

In every town and every neighborhood are places where informal leaders go to hang out and do the real business of the town. In Minot, North Dakota where I grew up, we had Charlie’s restaurant and the Elks Lodge. These were the places where the “business of the community” was done (not at the city council meetings). These were the places where ideas were hatched and where the future of Minot was mapped out … often under the influence of a libation or two.

These informal meeting places, most often locally owned businesses, are what I call Front Porches, named after the front yard gathering spots so often seen in Latino communities that are used for neighborhood discussion and connection to the street. These Front Porches are where the Middle Ring flourishes and what the French political philosopher, Alex de Tocqueville, observed in the 1800’s as the source of America’s “inclusive exceptionalism.”

Your neighborhood’s Front Porch can be anywhere or anything. It can be the local pub down the street or the coffee-house where you get your morning sustenance from. It can be Bill’s garage where everyone gathers to watch Sunday football games. It can even be your kitchen table. What happens on the Front Porch is what matters … not what is looks like or where it is.

It’s not enough just have a place to get together though. Front Porches need to promote the activity that bolsters engagement. This activity should be more than just idle talk though. What if it took the form of informal volunteer projects. I call these street-level Front Porch based civic fixes, Solutions. They are designed to help pick up the civic slack and mend its societal safety net while bringing your community members together through action, not just talk. These Solutions can range from organizing a cleanup effort, to fixing a playground, to even spearheading a high school mentoring or apprentice program.

Community 3.0 is my community engagement platform built around the concept of the Front Porch and the Solutions that are nurtured in them. Using street-level direct civic participation as an augmentation to governmental representation, I believe we can not only create a more responsive and inclusive society – but one that leverages its members to build an environment of physical, mental and social well-being.

Community 3.0 uses the bleedingEDGE 1-to-1 marketing system to mobilize Front Porch patrons and keep them emotionally motivated to help not only help their community, but also themselves through a set of pre-programmed event-driven nudges. These nudges not only focus on recruiting members for volunteer projects, its content advocates for healthy behaviors. Rather than just ‘push burgers’ … your local Front Porch can offer a deal on a Caesar Salad for those who helped with the Saturday morning clean up effort organized by them.

As a part of the Community 3.0 platform we’ve put together a roster of several examples of what can come from these Front Porch volunteer collaborations. These examples represent Solutions to many common needs and opportunities a community may encounter. By no means is this roster comprehensive, but it’s a start.

What the 3.0 Front Porch network will provide is an opportunity to engage through civic collaboration – often with people you don’t know and may be nothing like you. By taking advantage of these serendipitous engagements, you will provide yourself with the resources that will help you and your community strengthen individual and collective self-efficacy. And through this self-efficacy, and by breaking the habit of the “man on the white horse” our epidemic of loneliness will find a formidable foe … and that foe is us.

Ask yourself: “If not me … then who? And if not now … then when?”

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I realize that we need more than just a prodding to “do something.” I suppose one way is just interacting with your neighbors more, or striking up a conversation with the person behind you in the grocery line. But no matter how many of these ‘one offs’ we do – they’re still just that … ‘one offs.’ Here’s how we can leverage our commitment and make our actions contagious. Just let me know how you feel you would like to participate at clayforsberg@gmail.com.

  • Join the Community 3.0 as a Community Empowerment Concierge (CEC). As a CEC you will help find and set up Front Porches in your community.
  • Or you can help find a CEC in your community and assist them.
  • Or once your community gets set up on the 3.0 network – you can help develop engagement projects (Solutions) in your community’s Front Porches.

Community 3.0 will be up and running in the Fall of 2018

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Why Do We Hate Our Kids?

Montana’s Joint Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee (in the state I live) turned heads in June when it made the decision to consider cutting the department’s budget by $93 million during the next two years. That’s a 15 percent reduction during the last biennium and on top of cuts proposed by Governor Steve Bullock during the legislative session.

Recently revised revenue projections revealed an additional ten percent cut will be required. Since then a daily war of words has played out in the newspapers. Democrats in the minority party have decried the fate of our state’s children, while the state Republican majority have stayed hard and fast in the need to maintain fiscal conservatism – even in the light of homeless and neglected children running abandoned in the streets at ever-increasing numbers.

The Child Services department has struggled to deal with an increase of children in care. In 2008 there were 1,507 children in foster care. By 2016, the number of foster kids had grown 111 percent to 3,179. And as of June of this year, the number has risen again to 3,454 kids. Methamphetamine use by parents has fueled the number of severe child abuse cases and fatalities. More than 1,000 foster kids had parents who were using meth. That’s four times as many as in 2010. Welcome to the new realities of life in idyllic rural America.

Child abuse and neglect cases filed in court more than doubled to 2,321 — up 125 percent from 2010 to 2015. Yet the caseworkers handling the flood of calls, the permanent staff in the state Division of Child and Family Services, actually decreased 4 percent. The 2013 Legislature provided more money for Child and Family Services, but ordered reductions in employees – figure that one out. In Montana caseworkers carry workloads that “far exceed national standards.” This is compounded by the fact that working conditions are atrocious. Computer systems are older than many tasked with working on them, resulting in an average job tenure of less than two years. By the time they’re fully trained, they’re burned out and out the door on the first bus out of town (since they can hardly afford anything else).

Child Welfare Is Not A Cold

Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula, carried several bills during the last legislative session, among them was one to designed to create more pilot projects to look at working with families who come into contact with Child and Family Services before they go to court. The bill passed the House with a 99-0 vote even with a $75,000 fiscal note attached. The bill would revive a pilot project approved last session that is meant to let division employees work with children and families on treatment plans before having to file a court case.

While on the surface this program seems like a logical answer … it’s nothing other than window dressing – and on a dirty window at that. More studies looking at what we already know. A statewide allocation of $75,000 is hardly enough to buy donuts for the planning meetings – let alone actually doing something that these studies might come up with. And tell me where are the people going to come from to do this pre-emptive intervention when there isn’t enough human resources available to handle the cases they already have. This is just more of government vying for press over production. After the local news crews pack up and go home – the children behind the soundbites will still be making Top Romen for themselves at home (if they have one) and falling through the cracks at ever-increasing numbers as their so-called parents are busy “chasing the bag.”

While I applaud the efforts of Dudeck and her recognition that efforts need to be focused before-the-fact … they’re still nowhere enough, nor far enough before-the-fact. Governmental efforts to deal with societal child maladies are too often treated like the common cold. We look at the symptom thinking if we mask them with a short-term solution like a Tylenol (or in the child’s case – foster care), with time it’ll pass. Let the virus run its course and endure the discomfort in the interim. But even with a cold, eventually – sooner than later there’s a test for an infection. And if the test is positive then antibiotics are prescribed. Without them, the problem will only get worse. Somewhere underneath there’s an underlying cause. Waiting out a child’s social problems and hoping they’ll pass is tantamount to waiting out an infection. The prognosis will not be good … possibly even fatal.

Where’s The Community?

Governmental departments operate in silos. It’s a little of poor design and obsession with protecting turf. They seldom communicate, let alone coordinate efforts. Conducting a deep dive into a community’s true problems is well beyond the scope of any of their job descriptions – whatever the silo. Child service problems are normally attributed to unemployment, drug use, lack of affordable housing – or all of the above. These causes are really just symptoms too. Dig deeper, the more complex the situation gets … and yet the solution may be more simple.

Take drug use. Addiction is not only a psychological problem – it also has sociological and even anthropological components. A drug user or alcoholic could have PTSD or other psychological issues contributing to a dual diagnosis. Neither component of the diagnosis can be treated separately or without consideration for a person’s environment. Treatment rarely works when the patient is returned to associate with the same peer group they left (or were removed from). Yet where do they go? Most of the time – right back to where they were in the first place. This is their familiar point of social contact. Helping them find another one, one more conducive for a positive change in behavior, is far beyond the “job” of the governmental social safety net our society has become addicted to rely on.

And even if drugs were the problem, how did the situation get to the point that there was no safety net for the child available other than the government. Where are their friends and their parents? Where is the family?  Where’s the community? It’s understandable it’s possible for someone to go off the rails, whether they have a child or not. But to have this happen and there be no one there to help – especially in the case of the helpless, is not understandable … nor is it acceptable. Has our society become so torn apart and callous that even the basics needs of our children are looked at optional? And are they subjected to the same budget priorities as digging a hole in the ground to build a road out in the middle of nowhere where maybe five pickup trucks an hour will use.

Animals abandoned by their packs and herds in the wild seldom make it on their own. Why should we expect a different fate for humans? Is it we think it’s alright to just “go it alone?” Have we become so collectively stubborn that we don’t think we need help? Or do we know we do, but just can’t find anyone – anyone but the government, which is pretty much a feel fall into Dante’s Hell. If those who need basic neighborly help can’t find it … what does that tell us? How far are we willing to go to let this John Wayne, Clint Eastwood loner Hollywood prototype manifest into reality. At the end of the day John and Clint could get off their horse and go home to a house, a soft bed and a hot meal cooked by someone who loved them.

Outside of Hollywood in our real lives – this doesn’t seem to be the case. And with it we take our youngest with us on this journey of living hell. Where did they sign up for this? Many, policy makers included, wholeheartedly believe “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I suppose in some circumstances that’s true. But for the ones it’s not – there will be a lot of carnage. Is this the Machiavellian society we want?

Rebuilding The Middle Ring

In 2014, Marc Dunkelman wrote an excellent book on the evolution, or should I say the de-evolution of the American neighborhood, The Vanishing Neighbor.” In his book Dunkelman introduces the concept of the Middle Ring. The ‘Middle Ring is what Dunkelman calls our neighbourly relationships. This is in contrast to the inner-ring of family and close friends, and the ever-expanding outer-ring relationships fostered by the digital age and social media. Unfortunately the “middle” is not holding, collapsing from pressures on both sides. Social media has brought our closest contacts closer and expanded our reach to include “weak ties” that we know only through cyberspace. Compound this with the proliferation of politically segregated cable and internet news outlets, we have little time or attention for anyone else, physically or philosophically. And what suffers are our neighborhood acquaintances, our communities and the memories of what they used to stand for.

There’s been much discussion in the last decade about the decay of the American community, at least as we like to remember it, or as Hollywood portrays it. But really it’s the loss of the Middle Ring we’re seeing. We still have communities, they’re just not inhabited by “our neighbors.”

“Few Americans today say they know their neighbors’ names, and far fewer report interacting with them on a daily basis. Pulling data from the General Social Survey, economist Joe Cortright wrote in a recent City Observatory report that only about 20 percent of Americans spent time regularly with the people living next to them. A third said they’ve never interacted with their neighbors. That’s a significant decline from four decades ago, when a third of Americans hung out with their neighbors at least twice a week, and only a quarter reported no interaction at all.” (Community Ties in an Era Isolation)

It’s the loss of these neighbors who were physically around that could be counted on (often without even asking) that’s creating a social divide in America. In the past, before World War II, our neighbors were our support. They were the doctors, the midwives and the handymen. They were where we could go to get food when we needed it. It’s what got America through the Great Depression.

We didn’t have to agree with them politically, socially or otherwise, but we knew them and they were still our neighbors. And we could count on them.

But with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, the government became America’s support system. The help of your neighbor wasn’t as important. That worked fine, but that reliance on the township, the community, the neighborhood and in turn the nurture of our Middle Ring began to wane. It wasn’t so evident at first. But the chinks in the armour, so to say, were beginning to show, even back then.

And now it seems as if we’ve all but lost our Middle Ring. Maybe not physically. There’s still people who live next door and down the street, but we don’t know them. Maybe we’ve never even met them. We don’t know where they’ve been or where they want to go. And it kind of makes it hard to help them get there.

In this time of Trump we’re going have rely on our neighbors as the government is on a fast track to absolve itself of any responsibility of the well-being of the populace it supposedly represents. I guess they feel if we a have a horse and a cowboy hat we’ll be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and ride off. This being the case – maybe we can use this governmental neglect as wake up call. Maybe we can face the inevitable that the days of Roosevelt may have irreparably aged. And from it, maybe we can usher in a new age, one not based on Leviathan to take care of us, but rather one that values the Middle Ring and the benefits of having neighbors close. This involves work on our part though. The government can’t legislate that we go meet our neighbors. It can’t make us shovel out the driveway of the elderly woman down the street … let alone move in with her. And it can’t make us be a friend with guy down the street who’s glued to Fox News 24/7 and overcome whatever ideological differences we may have. And it shouldn’t.

Isn’t it time we take back our communities and neighborhoods? It’s not that anyone or anything really took them from us. They’re still there, but they need care like a garden. Left unattended, they’ll dry up or get taken over by weeds – figuratively and literally. The way we start this “garden” restoration project is by rebuild our Middle Ring … and recognize the solution has been here all along no matter the age or their plight.

That shovel is waiting … and so is the woman down the street and the child cooking Top Romen.

If you’re interested in moving on from the status quo that will inevitably take anyone and anything down with it … please check out Community 3.0, my vision of an evolved society where self-efficacy and the well-being is priority. Or even better email me, at clayforsberg@gmail.com and we can set up time to have a conversation.

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Rebutting the Hysteria: More Thoughts on “13 Reasons Why”

Last week it seemed like I was bombarded by articles on the impending doom descending upon our adolescents due to the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Pretty much every article cited a study done by San Diego State University Graduate School of Public Health associate research professor John W. Ayers just published in the scientific journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Ayers and his team of researchers focused on United States internet searches between March 31, 2017 (13 Reason Why‘s release date) and April 18, 2017 (so queries wouldn’t coincide with the April 19 suicide death of former Patriots football player Aaron Hernandez). Every search phrase included the word “suicide,” omitting the word “squad” so searches for the film Suicide Squad wouldn’t contaminate the results. Then they compared those results with searches and daily trends between January 15, 2017, and March 30, 2017 to get a baseline sense of what those searches are like generally.

The findings showed that after the release of 13 Reasons Why, which follows the events surrounding a fictional teenager’s eventual suicide through a series of tapes she leaves behind, all suicide-related searches were 19 percent higher than expected.

While awareness-related phrases like “suicide hotline” and “suicide prevention” were up 12 percent and 23 percent, respectively, “how to commit suicide” increased by 26 percent, “commit suicide” by 18 percent, and “how to kill yourself” by 9 percent.

That said, it’s unclear if these specific internet searches were definitely related to the show. It also isn’t clear whether those searches actually led to suicide attempts or deaths. But Ayers noted that previous research has found a correlation between increased searches for suicide methods and actual suicides. In other words – Ayers is extrapolating his interpretation to what he thinks is causation – but can’t really show anything but what he wanted to show in the first place.

Studies like this are clickbait shrouded in an academic cloak. First correlation doesn’t prove causation. And second nothing, especially teenagers, operates in a bubble. There is no experiment group vs. control group to compare. Also, even more importantly, one would assume there would be an uptick in internet searches associated a popular teenage series (no matter the content and especially if it has weight). To think this curiosity will cause additional action where there already has been action – is far from conclusive.

In my May 12 blog piece, “13 Reasons Why” … And Why It Matters To Your Community, I made a case why I thought the series was a good thing for our communities, including both adolescents and adults. But I’m not one who thinks we need to shelter our youth from the “monsters under bed.” On the contrary, I firmly believe we should empower our teenagers to develop the skills and self-efficacy to fight back against the aforementioned monsters. For there will alway be monsters under every bed well past the teenage years. The better our children get at fighting them early on … the better off they’ll be later on in life.

What I stressed in my previous piece, and what the pieces based on Ayer’s research didn’t (anywhere) – was what is the role of the community and adults who run them. What role can those living with and around teenagers, not only parents – but mentors, neighbors and civic leaders, play in their mental health? What are these people doing to create environments that dissuade our young from getting to the point of such extreme disenfranchisement in the first place.

In “Why People Die By Suicide” (2005), Thomas Joiner, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, drew on the testimony of survivors, stacks of research and the loss of his own father to upend minds. He recognized the myriad pressures on a suicidal mind — substance abuse, genetic predisposition to mental illness, poverty — but identified three factors present in all of those most at risk: a genuine belief, however irrational, that they have become a burden to those around them; a sense of isolation; and the ability, which goes against our hard-wired instincts of self-preservation.

The question we should be asking ourselves is how should we combat this sense of isolation that breeds within our young people. Whatever the reasons why, the best way of combating destructive behavior, including suicide, is refocusing energy by providing positive outlets and alternatives. If your life has a purpose, you’re much more likely to spend your time and attention on that purpose rather than on self-annihilation. It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself and escape in a bottle of vodka if you’re too busy helping those in an even worse space than you. For example, studies have shown volunteering often helps the person doing the volunteering more than the person being helped.

Even after we’ve addressed the reasons why and created positive outlets to focus on, we still don’t live in a Perfect World though. The human psyche is vulnerable. The monsters will always be there and no matter how much we try to ignore them … they’re still going to find their way out from under the bed into our minds. Or in the words of John Milton; “turn our heaven into hell.” The question ultimately becomes … how do we deal with them when they do. Do we dive into the bottle or the medicine cabinet – or do we shake it off and put the haze of gloom behind us? How much can we, or in the case of “13 Reasons Why” our kids – take? 

Salutogenesis and Self-Efficacy

Salutogenesis is a term coined by Aaron Antonovsky, a former professor of medical sociology in the United States. The term describes a health approach focusing on factors that support human health and well-being, rather than on factors that cause disease (pathogenesis). More specifically, the “salutogenic model” is concerned with the relationship between health, stress, and coping. Antonovsky’s theories reject the “traditional medical-model dichotomy separating health and illness”. He described the relationship as a continuous variable, what he called the “health-ease versus dis-ease continuum.”

In 2008 Scotland, specifically Chief Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns, adopted salutogenesis as national public health policy. Burns helped Scotland conceptualize health improvement differently, being aware that the small gains that resulted from a range of interventions can add up to produce significant overall improvements. Much of these interventions were and are aimed at empowering the populace through engagement with their own health outcomes.

Engagement creates agency and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is defined as the extent or strength one believes in their own ability to complete tasks and reach goals. The more a person believes their actions will help their situation, the more likely they are to try. When fighting adversity, self-efficacy is your tool chest. It’s your ability to fight the monsters under the bed. One of the most potent defenses we have is engagement. This engagement can be with ourself, through our minds and bodies, or with those around us in our communities and neighborhoods. “Doing” is a prescription for well-being. The more a person does, the more they’re likely to do. And the more they do, the more they feel what they’re doing is helping … creating a cascade of positive results and self-efficacy.

Now as the supposed adults in this discussion (that is highly questionable at times though), isn’t our responsibility to step in and do something other than playing Chicken Little running around screaming the sky is falling. Our kids are fragile, as we are. Sheltering them is not the answer though. Empowering them and giving them access to engagement to boost self-efficacy is.

In the last couple decades we decided that the effective way to bring up our children is to strip them of opportunities to express themselves in benign ways as they wish. At the earliest age possible we relegate them to organized academic activities pounding reading instruction down their throats even in preschool rather than letting them flourish in unstructured play where they self-learn coping and socialization. It’s no wonder when they get into situations later on, outside of the constructs of the classroom, they don’t adapt well.

Even though our adolescents are exposed to the same information we adults are due to technology, we still often view them as less than people. Our teenagers are not the way we were. No matter how much we want to shelter them – we can’t. What we can do is help them acquire the tools to successfully cope and excel. And this responsibility extends well past the walls of our classrooms and even our homes. It lies open with everyone in our communities.

“I believe that the community – in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures – is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a  contradiction in terms.” Wendell Berry

The world we all live in is charging ahead at a speed no one could have envisioned. While we can pull from our experiences of the past – we can’t take them verbatim as the answer for the problems we face today. Our mission must be to use the past and mold the positive value it bequeaths us and let it evolve to a more relevant time of today and tomorrow. And central to this social inheritance is the Middle Ring of our neighborhood and community relationships.

Introducing the ‘Middle Ring”

A few years ago Marc Dunkelman wrote an excellent book on the evolution, or should I say the de-evolution of the American neighborhood, “The Vanishing Neighbor.” In his book Dunkelman introduces the concept of the Middle Ring. The Middle Ring is what Dunkelman calls our neighbourly relationships. This is in contrast to the inner-ring of family and close friends, and the ever-expanding outer-ring relationships fostered by the digital age and social media. Unfortunately the ‘middle’ is not holding, collapsing from pressures on both sides. Social media sites have brought our closest contacts closer and expanded our reach to include ‘weak ties’ that we know only through cyberspace. Compound this with the proliferation of politically and interest segregated cable and internet news outlets, we have little time or attention for anyone else, physically or philosophically. And what suffers are our neighborhood acquaintances, our communities and the memories of what they used to stand for.

There’s been much discussion in the last decade about the decay of the American community as we like to remember it, or as Hollywood portrays it. But really it’s the loss of the Middle Ring we’re seeing. We still have communities, they’re just not inhabited by ‘our neighbors.’

It’s the loss of these neighbors who were physically around that could be counted on (often without even asking) that’s creating a social divide in America. In the past, before World War II, our neighbors were our support. They were the doctors, the midwives and the handymen. They were where we could go to get food when we needed it. It’s what got America through the Great Depression.

We didn’t have to agree with them politically, socially or otherwise, but we knew them and they were still our neighbors. And we could count on them.

But with Roosevelt and the New Deal, the government became America’s support system. The help of your neighbor wasn’t as important. That worked fine, but that reliance on the township, the community, the neighborhood and in turn the nurture of our Middle Ring began to wane. It wasn’t so evident at first. But the chinks in the armour, so to say, were beginning to show, even back then.

And now it seems as if we’ve all but lost our Middle Ring. Maybe not physically. There’s still people who live next door and down the street, but we don’t know them. Maybe we’ve never even met them. We don’t know where they’ve been or where they want to go. And it kind of makes it hard to help them get there.

As a result our neighbors don’t seem to have identities – and neither do our communities. It’s hard to tell one from another. Maybe it’s due to the prevalence of homogenized big box stores like Wal-Mart and Target. Maybe its the MacDonald’s or Starbucks on every corner rather than Joe’s Diner or Martha’s Koffee Klatch. Maybe it’s the gated communities where unless you live in one … you don’t know who or what does. Maybe it’s all of it. But regardless, everywhere kind of seems the same. It’s like there’s planned communities everywhere, except they’re not intentionally planned.

It’s time to re-examine this way of life we’ve created – one that increasingly resolves around isolation not engagement. It this the world we want our children to have? Do we want their only access to the answers they need to grow up being on the other end of the screen of the iPhone? Our lack of attention to the communities we have socially and civically abandoned has given them no other option. It’s no surprise some of the most desperate see suicide as the only option.

Also last week the sentence came down on the “death by texting case.” Michelle Carter received sentence of only 15 months, while the prosecution wanted seven years. The mother of Conrad Roy, the boy who committed suicide at the encouragement of Carter is calling for new legislation to invoke mandatory sentences for future offenders in similar cases. As Bill Clinton once famously said, “you can’t legislate morality.” no politician is going to come to our rescue. Only we, the ones who live in our communities, can create them as we want to.

Since we’ve let our civic and social relationships, especially across generations, decline to the extent it has – shouldn’t we take responsibility, own up to the problem and make efforts right at home in our neighborhoods to fix them. Calls for mandatory penalties are not going to repair the social fabric of our communities, deter anti-social behavior or bring back a troubled loved one – no matter how impassioned they are. Only we, the leaders of our communities, can affect change by encouraging an embrace of empathy and compassion that jumpstarts a collaborative dialogue with our teenagers.

Whether you believe it or not, our children are more capable than we ever were at their age. We just don’t give them the avenues to express themselves to create environments around them to better fit the their social needs to handle the demands of the daily stresses they encounter in a over saturated world. And we’re sure not doing it for them.

“To learn is to accept that one’s growth—the endless process of becoming who they will be—depends on engaging the strangeness within themselves (the part that is perpetually open, unpredictable) as much as interacting with a strange world of knowledge that they can absorb but never know in its entirety on their own.” Maximillian Alveraz

The summer job at the gas station down the street or the pick up baseball game in the vacant lot are gone. We, the adults, have let them go away. We replaced them with Wal-Mart and volleyball summer camps (for our benefit more than theirs). What ever summer jobs might be left are filled by retirees too actively young or financially needing to retire. Cross-generational interaction isn’t based on physical collaboration – it’s from a spectator perspective. Distrust because of unfamiliarity extends up and down the age spectrum.

Our answers lie in inclusion and engagement across all lines. Our young people are assets if we treat them that way. Help them build their own futures rather than create barriers because we think they should act like we did (whether we even did or not). After all the world we’re living in will soon be theirs – and we will be the ones needing their help. The more successful the transition we provide … the better off we all will be.

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“13 Reasons Why” … And Why It Matters To Your Community

I watch Netflix – as I’m sure quite a few of us do. A couple of months I was looking at their original section and I noticed “13 Reasons Why.” I had read about it and thought about watching it … but no matter how intrigued I was, I couldn’t get myself to dive into a series about adolescent suicide. On the surface it looked too much like the plethora of other young adult series you find on Netflix … only with a more ominous premise.

But then after a few weeks I noticed “13 Reasons Why” was starting to get a lot of buzz in the mainstream media, but not because it so good – but because many parents and the mental health profession considered it too controversial. The book it was based on was even appearing on banned book lists. This peaked my interest. 

A few years ago, Harvey Weinstein and his brother, Bob, of the acclaimed Weinstein Films produced a topical film about teenage bullying aptly named “Bully.” While not entering the territory of being banned, the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) gave it an R rating; even though its target audience was high school kids and it confronted an issue too often ignored in our schools. Apparently the colorful language of real life in high school was just too much for the virgin ears of teenagers to hear on the screen. Outraged and standing behind their film and its significant societal benefits, the Weinstein brothers circumvented the MPAA and re-released with no rating (NR), leaving it up the each individual theatre to make the call who could see it.

I couldn’t get “Bully” out of my mind every time I thought of diving (or not) into “13 Reasons Why.” Much of the exact things overprotective parents, however well-meaning they may be, want to shelter their kids from are the exact things they encounter everyday at school. As with bullying – suicide, whether carried through on or just contemplated, is real their real world. And our reluctance as parents and adults to see this and confront it head on can have catastrophic consequences.

“13 Reasons Why”

“13 Reasons Why” revolves around a high school student, Clay Jensen, and his friend Hannah Baker, a girl who committed suicide after suffering a series of demoralizing circumstances brought on by select individuals at her school. A box of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah before her suicide details thirteen reasons why she ended her life.

As I mentioned above, the series was not without controversy. It seemed to initiate a united global front from psychology and psychiatric organizations. The outcry centered on the series’ over-simplification of the reasons behind suicide. Much of the focus of “13 Reasons Why” was put on the bullying Hannah had to endure. This reaction is not surprising. After all, the value of their profession is predicated on the assumption that our psychological maladies are rooted internally – and not fixed simply through external adjustments.

In Montana where I live, the state legislature meets for one three-month session every two years. Being heavily conservative, they don’t really do much of anything that involves spending money. They’re big on trying get more guns everywhere, restrict abortion and rid the state all that evil liberal stuff like environmental regulations. But spending money … not so much.

About only thing that both parties could agree on was a mental health and suicide prevention bill. Or at least that’s what they called it. The legislation established that insurance companies that operate in the state must cover mental health on the same level as physical health (welcome to the 21st century). It also dedicated a whole $1 million for local communities, school districts and tribes to develop their own suicide prevention programs. $1 millions doesn’t go far. That’s about one dollar for every person in the state – what a MacDonald’s double cheeseburger on the dollar menu used to cost when there was such a thing.  I suppose we should happy in the Big Sky Country they even did that, since about their only other accomplishment was to add a couple extra judges to deal with all the meth cases that have been piling up.

However well-intended this legislation is, it’s still after-the-fact. Granted, maybe more counseling will help persuade a disenfranchised kid to not take that final step; but anyone who has or has had teenagers knows, probably one of the last places they’re going to go to talk about suicide is to an office that sits down the corner from the principal. The risk of being on the principal’s radar, for whatever the reason, is too much  of a deterrent. School architects don’t think about these things. However, aside from where the counselor sits – too much of the time, the effort is put in is still after-the-fact.

Suicide is an effect of the circumstances thrust upon us by the current society we live in. For the most part it’s a reaction one has to the stresses of their lives, like doing drugs or drinking alcohol – only much more extreme. Granted some methods of coping are a lot more self-destructive than others – they are still all ways to psychologically vent, opening our steam valve. Releasing this pressure is going to have to happen one way or another. The question is how.

I believe how and when this release happens is a function of three components. These act in concert and the result of this interaction can often dictate whether someone lives or dies. Our goal as communities must be to sway these factors in as positive direction as possible.

  • What are the external factors that contribute to the pressures one undergoes in their lives (financial issues, bullying, academic pressures, etc.)?
  • What outlets are available, adolescent or adult, to release this pressure (sports, work, drugs, hobbies, etc.)?
  • How mentally strong is the person (level of self-efficacy) and how much pressure can they take?

It’s easy to simplify the phenomenon of adolescent suicide, as “13 Reason Why” was criticized of – by saying much of its root cause is bullying. Or we can blame parents – whether being over-protective, demanding of even just being indifferent. Or we can blame it on society as a whole by saying it’s just damn unjust and too many of our kids have poverty ridden upbringings (even though poor kids don’t kill themselves any more than rich ones do). Regardless, pinning the blame on external factors, whatever those may be, address only one of the contributing components. Unfortunately, no matter how much we try, there are always going to be reasons why; there’s always going to be monsters under the bed – no matter how well-feathered that bed may be.

Whatever the reasons why, the best way of combating destructive behavior, including suicide, is refocusing energy by providing positive outlets and alternatives. If your life has a purpose, you’re much more likely to spend your time and attention on that purpose rather than on self-annihilation. For example, it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself and drown yourself in a bottle of vodka if you’re too busy helping those less fortunate than you are. In fact volunteering often helps the person doing the volunteering more than the person being helped.

“The mind…can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” ― John Milton

Even after we’ve addressed the reasons why and created positive outlets to focus on, we still don’t live in a Perfect World. The human psyche is vunerable. The monsters will always be there and no matter how much we try to ignore them … they’re still going to find their way into our minds. Or in the words of John Milton; “turn our heaven into hell.” The question ultimately becomes … how do we deal with them when they do. Do we dive into the bottle or the medicine cabinet – or do we shake it off and put the haze of gloom behind us. How much can we, or in the case of “13 Reasons Why” our kids – take. 

Salutogenesis and Self-Efficacy

Salutogenesis is a term coined by Aaron Antonovsky, a former professor of medical sociology in the United States. The term describes a health approach focusing on factors that support human health and well-being, rather than on factors that cause disease (pathogenesis). More specifically, the “salutogenic model” is concerned with the relationship between health, stress, and coping. Antonovsky’s theories reject the “traditional medical-model dichotomy separating health and illness”. He described the relationship as a continuous variable, what he called the “health-ease versus dis-ease continuum.”

In 2008 Scotland, specifically Chief Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns, adopted salutogenesis as national public health policy. Burns helped Scotland conceptualize health improvement differently, being aware that the small gains that resulted from a range of interventions can add up to produce significant overall improvements. Much of these interventions were and are aimed at empowering the populace through engagement with their own health outcomes.

Engagement creates agency and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is defined as the extent or strength one believes in their own ability to complete tasks and reach goals. The more a person believes their actions will help their situation, the more likely they are to try. When fighting adversity, self-efficacy is your tool chest, or for those in Montana, your ammunition stockpile. It’s your ability to fight the monsters under the bed. One of the most potent defenses we have is engagement. This engagement can be with ourself, through our minds and bodies, or with those around us in our communities and neighborhoods. “Doing” is a prescription for well-being. The more a person does, the more they’re likely to do. And the more they do, the more they feel what they’re doing is helping … creating a cascade of positive results and self-efficacy.

Now back to “13 Reasons Why.” Let’s assume that the story of Hannah was not fiction; what could those thirteen people have done that would have changed the outcome? But even more so, since the reasons why are just one variable, one factor in the suicide equation – should this even be the question we’re asking? Ultimately suicide is still a personal decision. If there’s a complaint I have with the show, it’s that it portrays Hannah too much as the victim; just a pawn of the external circumstance swirling around her, the poor girl at the peril of the “monsters under the bed.”

That being said, external factors can’t ignored. In fact external factors play prominently into all three of the components I’ve referenced above. What could have these thirteen people have done to create a community that was designed around positive engagement opportunities for young people so they their reaction to stress wasn’t addictive substances and self-destruction? What could they have done to nurture their young people so they could weather storms like these – because there will alway be storms in their lives, whether it be today or in the future? These are the questions we should be asking ourselves. We can’t restrict our focus to efforts after-the-fact … after the damage is so severe that whatever hole is plugged today is only going to reappear tomorrow or the next day. 

We have to wake the hell up otherwise our kids are going to kill themselves. It may not be one thing, but the accumulation of things that add up that gives them the feeling of inescapable hopelessness. Engagement refocuses and helps them break free of the downward cascade. It’s a positive release … and with this release comes hope.

Confederate flags
Livingston, Montana High School

The Failing of a Town and Creating Hope in Yours

Last year I wrote about a suicide that occurred in Livingston, Montana – down the road from me here. In The Failing of a Town, seventeen year old Deon Gillen committed suicide after years of being bullied. His plight was no secret though. On numerous occasions his mother brought it up with school administrators. When a Billings Gazette article came out detailing the incident, the public outcry was harsh – so harsh that the high school shut down their Facebook page, attempted to discredit the report and enacted a locked door policy during school hours. Just the time they have should embraced taking responsibility … they circled the wagons. This was not unexpected though.

I wish that was the end of the story however. It wasn’t though. Not even two weeks after Deon’s tragedy, two more people in Livingston (pop. 7000) committed suicide. This time it was two adults and they received barely a footnote in the paper. Not only had Livingston failed its youth, it failed its adults as well. In a separate article, I read that Park County, of which Livingston is the county seat, has the highest suicide rate in the state (in a state that has the highest rate in the country). And this was calculated before the latest rash of incidents. This dubious distinction is no small feat, but probably not one they’ll include in Livingston Chamber of Commerce’s next promo brochure. What the hell type of a place is this that access to engagement and positive outlets to stress release is so limited that the accepted alternative is to kill yourself.

“Leave every person, every place and everything better off from you being there.”

It’s everyone’s responsibility to make their community better for all its residents. We can’t push off this responsibility to only politicians and social workers. And that doesn’t mean just low taxes and more box stores. It’s up to all of us to contribute – not just take and lobby for our own interests. Helping others is not only the right thing to do … in the long run it’s a prudent economic strategy for a community to take. Going around proclaiming how great your town is when people have few opportunities to engage, reach out and be touched is hypocritical and will eventually be self-defeating.

Too much of the time we assume legislation is the only way to fix our societal ills – like here in Montana with the suicide prevention bill. In reality it’s just the easy way out for us adults to say we’re doing something – giving us an excuse to say we’re actually doing something for our kids. Bill Clinton once said “You can’t legislate morality.” No truer words have been said.

For two years I’ve stood on my soapbox and preached the need for us to rebuild the relationships with those around us in our physical neighborhoods. I’ve stressed focusing on our commonalities not our differences. These Middle Ring neighborhood relationships and the actions that come from them are what are going to determine the personality of where we live. It will determine what we do when someone, say one of our children like Dion, is in trouble. It’s how we raise them and whether we teach them to be empathetic and compassionate. It’s whether we view hardened ideology as a virtue or an obstacle. It’s whether NIMBYism is the norm or a condemnable exception. It’s whether we confront someone for bigoted talk and attitudes … or we just let it slide. These are the socially accepted attitudes and norms that determine what we do when it matters most. They determine our communities’ character.

It’s not easy to make the effort to do the right thing – especially if runs contrary to community norms.. It’s easier just to go with flow and expect someone else will take the chance and do it. But normally no one does. Be the one that does. And who knows … maybe someone else will start doing the right thing too.

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Community 3.0 is a customer engagement platform that enables small businesses to combine their loyalty marketing efforts with messaging designed to improve the well-being of their community. This messaging is designed to combat mental, physical and social isolation through community and civic based engagement and volunteer activities. Community 3.0‘s efforts to improve the human condition is detailed at the initiative’s dedicated site, “Engagement For A Purpose” here.

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