A few years ago, in a Zimbabwe village a mental health organization set up a bench in the centre of the town to address a high rate of depression among villagers. It was meant to encourage people to share their problems with each other. They called it the Mental Health Bench. No one came. No one wanted to sit on a Mental Health Bench. Eventually, it was renamed The Friendship Bench. People came. They stayed to talk. Stories were told, problems discussed, possible solutions found. Connections were made. The rate of depression among at-risk villagers went down significantly.
Here in North America’s busy techno-driven world, depression is at an all time high. It is very high among adolescents and young adults with learning differences such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. One research study cites the rate of suicidal tendencies in young adults with ASD as five times higher than those without ASD in the same age group. Why?
Even though we are “connected” by technology with thousands of people, we still need human contact. Interacting online means we control our social signals – because most of them are standardized – emojis are a good example. And so, we become less adept at face to face interactions and our innate need for human contact goes untended. Screens that “connect” our adolescents and young adults with differences, also DISconnect them from peers with whom they might find some commonality, a basis for friendships.
But why connect if you are someone who “doesn’t like people”? I meet many people like this. They self-identify as antisocial. One guy I know regularly goes to the mall. He may not buy anything. He goes into his favourite tech store, might have coffee or lunch and then goes back to his home office. The mall is his social spot. He gets a “hit” of people, and returns to his solitude. Does this make him antisocial? Well, he goes to a place where there are people. He says he does not LIKE them; but he still goes where they are. He also attends movies, ball games and the opera…where there are lots of people. He is in interdependent social settings, making up part of the larger social group. He is a social being.
Social Improv sessions act like a Friendship Bench. Instead of sitting and talking, we get together and learn improv games. These games have a social focus to help players decode other’s social signals and expectations. We explore how interactions work. We meet once a week for a short time. Players may or may not connect with each other afterward – when they do, they use their phones. But I often hear players say how good it feels to participate in our groups. Many of our players are soloists (AKA antisocial!) They enjoy being by themselves. Or they may have learned it is just easier to be alone. So, they feel great when they find out in Social Improv, that one to one interactions CAN feel good. And they don’t have to pretend to be someone else or even to like everyone to join the group! Social Improv is their Friendship Bench.
There is a Friendship Bench Organization here in Canada. It was started after the death of a second year Carlton University robotics student named Lucas Fiorella. Lucas had secretly suffered from depression and died by suicide in 2014. You’ll find the link to that organization at the end of this blog.
So, whether it is a bench or a mall or a coffee shop, what is YOUR social spot? If you can’t think of one, where could it be? Even if you feel you shouldn’t need one, we all need our social spot. Where is yours?