Asian man putting his left hand on clear glass window.Nearly three in five U.S. adults describe themselves as being lonely. People from underrepresented racial groups, those with lower incomes, and young people are even more vulnerable to feeling a lack of social connection.

Joining us today is Jacki Hecht, MSN, RN, managing director of the Center for Health Equity Research and the African American Mental Health and Wellness Program at the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing. She weighs in on how her work addresses social connection and well-being in the African American community.

Epidemic of Loneliness

A recent advisory from Dr. Vivek Murthy, United States Surgeon General, describes the epidemic of loneliness as a public health crisis. It warns that social connection is a significant predictor of longevity and better physical, cognitive, and mental health, while social isolation and loneliness are significant predictors of premature death and poor health.

“Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues,” writes Dr. Murthy.

Sharing Dr. Murthy’s understanding of how social connection influences well-being is the Austin-based African American Mental Health and Wellness Program (AMEN).

African American Mental Health and Wellness Program

AMEN is a unique community wellness initiative led by the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing, Mt. Zion Baptist Church, and Rehoboth Baptist Church. Funded by Austin Public Health, one of its primary objectives is to improve the mental health and wellness of the African American community

To build a sustainable, community-wide support system, AMEN also engages with healthcare providers, social service organizations, and local government. Participants work to raise awareness around mental health, reduce mental health stigma, and improve mental health outcomes.

Loneliness and Mental Health

Jacki Hecht, managing director of AMEN, understands well the relationship between loneliness and mental health.

“Loneliness and mental health are interconnected,” says Jacki. “Loneliness is associated with depression, anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. It has a true impact on our health, well-being, and quality of life.”

With this emphasis on community-based programming, AMEN is well-positioned to improve mental health outcomes and reduce health disparities in the African American community.

“Health happens in community,” says Jacki. “Our individual well-being is influenced by friends, family, social networks, and community resources.”

Helping Ourselves

We can be proactive and help ourselves, says Jacki. She offers advice on monitoring our mental health and suggestions for bolstering our mental health when faced with loneliness:

  • Give yourself permission to feel.
  • Be aware of your personal needs.
  • Define the quality of your interpersonal relationships.
  • Avoid getting “stuck” or fixated on feelings of loneliness. Look for the “bigger picture.”
  • Shift your focus by practicing gratitude.
  • Get out of your mind. Get moving with physical activities.
  • Engage in calming, soothing activities.
  • Focus on your breathing.
  • Find time for prayer.
  • Be sure to get quality sleep.
  • Reach out to others.

“Being lonely at times is part of the human experience. But persistent loneliness becomes problematic,” says Jacki. “As humans, we’re social beings and our ability to rely on one another has been essential to our survival throughout history.”

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