Social connection – shared time and experiences with family, friends and the community we live in – is now well accepted as a vital element of emotional, mental and physical wellbeing for all. For many mental health practitioners, it is a valuable tool in helping their clients. But why is it so beneficial? And with regard to veterans in particular, what can the scientific evidence tell us?
A number of studies that have specifically evaluated the value of social connectedness for the veteran community confirm the powerful protection that social connection can offer against negative mental health outcomes, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This is important in light of the fact that loneliness and social isolation are identified as prevalent issues within veteran communities worldwide.
Transition from military life brings losses and gains. Veterans may experience a loss of camaraderie and a loss of the pillars in their day-to-day life that gave them meaning, purpose, identity and connections.
Evidence suggests that feelings of loneliness and isolation may be caused by losing touch with former colleagues, and struggling to relate to civilians and adjust to civilian life. Service members who transition out of the military often face substantial challenges during their transition. Leaving military service requires establishing a new community as well as a sense of connectedness to that community. If a member is suffering from a mental health disorder, such as PTSD, building community connections can be more challenging still.
By helping transitioning veterans to develop new social connections and a sense of community belonging, services and practitioners can harness the benefits of social connectedness in boosting wellbeing and protecting against the development of mental health problems, including PTSD.
Engaging in meaningful and shared activities that align with the veteran’s values and interests, such as outdoor pursuits and sport, have also been shown to foster wellbeing.
Practitioners supporting veterans to enhance and maintain mental health and wellbeing have an important role to play in helping their clients to maintain existing social connections while building new connections, too.
The research shows there is a substantial association between social isolation and mental health outcomes. For mental health practitioners who work with veterans, by focussing care and interventions on increasing social support and protecting the veteran from social isolation, they can help to reduce potential adverse outcomes after military service, and prevent the further deterioration of mental health.