Most of us have friends, family members or colleagues we talk to on a daily basis, but how many of those people in our lives do we feel close to?
Strong connectedness — the level of closeness we feel to others — not only enhances our quality of life, it can also save lives.
During September —Suicide Prevention Month— the Department of Defense is focusing on Connectedness, using the slogan Connect To Protect to highlight how social connections and a sense of belonging can be a protective factor against suicide.
“Having that ‘connectedness’ with a friend or family member gives us the comfort of knowing we are not alone in a difficult situation,” said Master Sgt. Kevin Edmondson, Noncommissioned Officer in Charge, R2I and Training Division, Army Resilience Directorate. “That there is someone who we trust to have our best interest at heart, to provide us with the best advice they can provide, or sometimes it’s just having the ability to reach out and talk to...someone that will listen without judging.”
But how do we build a connection with others, how do we build the meaningful, close relationships that enhance our daily lives and serve as the foundation of support when we are going through tough times?
An authentic connection goes beyond acquaintance-level interactions, said Dr. Doreen Marshall, Vice President of Mission Engagement at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“When we are promoting connections or connectedness, we are really talking about being vulnerable with someone else, being able to express feelings, being able to also receive that from another person,” she said.
Showing your authentic self, including your struggles and imperfections — in other words, being vulnerable — is key to building close connections with others. Being vulnerable is often seen as a weakness in our society, but according to Marshall, it’s the opposite.
“It’s actually hard to be vulnerable. It takes tremendous courage and strength to show vulnerability,” Marshall said.
Having the courage to risk showing vulnerability is especially needed of leaders in the Army.
“It’s hugely important when someone in a position of power, or who has status, is able to show some vulnerability,” Marshall said. “When people are speaking out about their own mental health it kind of almost gives the rest of us permission to do it because they are doing it in a very public way.”
“It’s hard to connect with someone who appears not to have any challenges,” said Marshall. “It is in our humanness that we are able to connect.”
By being open about their own struggles, showing vulnerability, and forming connections, leaders model this behavior for others and create an environment where their Soldiers, family and friends feel closer to them and are not afraid to open up and talk about their own struggles.
“Transparency in Army leaders helps Soldiers realize that we are human, and we also experience challenges,” Edmondson said. “Many Soldiers believe that once you achieve a certain rank then all of the problems of the world go away ... that’s not the case at all. Ask any Army leader and I’m sure everyone can provide a situation where they too needed to seek assistance from a friend or professional to deal with a challenging situation.”
A first step leaders and Soldiers can take to create closeness and connection with others is by moving beyond surface-level interactions and inviting deeper conversations. Marshall encourages people to be proactive when inviting these conversations, as fellow Soldiers, leaders or family members who are struggling may not necessarily come to them first.
“When you are struggling with depression, it’s hard to see that there are people out there to help you, it’s hard to engage help,” Marshall said.
Try the following tips to deepen your connections and have “real conversations” with others:
- Don’t just ask how someone is doing, ask “How are you feeling?” or “How are you coping?”
- Put yourself out there. Reach out to someone struggling and ask, “What can I do to help you?” “How can I make this easier for you, how can I get involved?”
- Make space in your busy life to stop and really listen, say “This sounds important to you, and I want to hear more about how you are feeling.”
- Don’t necessarily give advice (unless asked), but instead ask people for their perspective, say “What do you think you need in this situation?”
- Share your own struggles. Currently, everyone is impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, so it is an opportunity to find moments of shared vulnerability with others.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, talk to your primary care provider for a professional referral. If you’re in crisis or are concerned for a loved one, call the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1. If it’s a life-threatening situation go to the nearest emergency room or call 9-1-1.