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Jamie Tworkowski: How Community Impacts Our Mental Health

Jamie Tworkowski: How Community Impacts Our Mental Health

Last year, the U.S. surgeon general released a report on the epidemic of loneliness in America, showing that loneliness isn’t just a mental issue but also a physical one. The solution to the loneliness epidemic is finding community, but that can be easier said than done.

To find out how to establish a health community, we sat down with To Write Love on Her Arms founder Jamie Tworkowski. He’s spent years working with other mental health advocates to build a safe and healthy community for anyone and everyone struggling with life, loneliness and mental illness.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Do you have any tips on creating important, lasting friendships as an adult?

You know, I would not have expected that leading small groups on Zoom would turn into kind of a case study for me for friendship and connection, but I really have. I feel like I’ve been learning some things, and I think we talk about it in various groups. And I think so much of it comes down to being intentional and being open.

There’s even an intentionality, and I’m not promoting groups or pretending, hey, that’s the solution, is we all need to be on Zoom, but there’s something intentional about being part of a group, right? And showing up to a meeting that we plan on. And I contrast that with my closest friends who live literally a mile away, my lifelong best friends who I can go weeks without seeing. You know, and when we leave it to chance, we end up not getting lunch, we end up not getting coffee or dinner. And again, they’re busy, they work, they have families. But I think it has made me realize I can’t be responsible for anyone else’s schedule or them showing up as a good friend or inviting me to things. I can only, I’m only responsible for my actions.

And so I can choose to be open. You know, sometimes my counselor will just flat out ask, “Are you leaving your house enough? Like, are you going out into the world?” Whether that is walking your dog, going to the cafe for lunch, like just being around other people. There’s a line or even a phrase in Blue Like Jazz that other people exist, like I have to be reminded that other people exist. But specifically to answer the question, I think when vulnerability is met with presence, attention, compassion, encouragement, I think that is a recipe for connection. And I think consistent connection, which requires us to be intentional, to make plans, to be specific, I think that leads to community. You know, so I think that’s just some based on kind of some things I’ve been thinking about. It’s not an expert opinion, but I think I’m realizing that, hey, when we choose to share, when we choose to talk about the real things, like not just pretending to have it all together and talk about the promotion or the vacation, but to talk about our grief and our confusion and life’s biggest questions, like when we share those parts of us with other people, and it goes well, like when someone gives us their presence and doesn’t try to fix it or solve it, but responds with empathy and compassion, I think that allows us to feel known and to feel close to another person. And you do that consistently, and I think that is a friendship.

I also like the idea of encouraging people to do things that they love. So if there’s a park that you love to walk through, if there’s a coffee shop you want to hang out at, do those things that are true to you, and hopefully you put yourself in a position to bump into other people who share those interests, people who might be like-minded. You know, you hope that you live in a place you feel good about and within that town or city, you get to kind of find your spots. And maybe it’s not just a coffee shop, maybe it’s joining a book club or a softball team, right? But I like the idea that by being specific and being intentional, we hopefully put ourselves in positions to make friends.

You mentioned meeting on Zoom is a great way to start. What are other ways we can use technology to connect? 

There are so many ways, honestly but our best head start is the people we already know. The numbers in our phone, the relationships, hopefully friendships, acquaintances, but I think, you know, again, going back to the idea, it’s easy to wait to be invited. It’s easy to wait for the phone call or the text and we can’t control any of that, but we can control whether or not we reach out. We can control, you know, who we, even if it’s a text that starts as simple as, “Hey, I’m thinking about you,” but we can also say, “Hey, could we get dinner this week?” And there’s an element of vulnerability because they may, you know, it doesn’t feel good to be ignored or to be disappointed. But I think also we can go down the list. I kind of joke that, you know, if I ask Mark to have dinner and he can’t, I don’t want to just feel sorry for myself. There may be a moment of disappointment, but I can also go down the list and invite Ian, invite, right? If the goal is connection, if the goal is friendship, I can keep seeking that out.

What are some things we can do to make sure we’re not replacing in-person relationships with technology?

Yeah, I think it’s interesting, but going back to the idea that best case scenario, we live in a place where within proximity, we can have community. We can get meals. We can physically sit at a table. We can go for a walk, go for a run. We can physically spend time with people. So I think that’s at the top of the list.

The idea that technology can be a substitute and alternative, a way to connect with people who live far away. And sometimes it’s funny, where we might have a friend that we love and we maybe text. I think we all live in this moment. You see the memes and the jokes about we don’t really call each other anymore. It’s a big deal if someone just calls you out of the blue. What if we reframe that? What if that person who lives 2000 miles away? What would that friendship look like if you committed to FaceTiming once a week? So I actually think it’s maybe less a conversation about technology and really more about how do I experience connection in my life?

And again, best case scenario, phones down, laptop is shut, we’re sitting together, but some of us would benefit from more FaceTime. Some of us would benefit from more phone calls. Some of us, it’s really a question of does anyone know you? And I think you could even coming back to mental health, counseling therapy. And my counselors, we started off the first couple of years in person. She moved to Ohio. I did not move to Ohio. So now essentially we do what you and I are doing right now. And I tell people all the time, it’s often the most important hour of my week, and it doesn’t feel different. Or it doesn’t feel noticeably different.

For me, that is still about therapy, vulnerability, healing. I’m not in there thinking about technology, if that makes sense. Technology is the medium, but I’m in there actively participating in, hopefully my healing and recovery and prioritizing my mental health. So I think that’s maybe an interesting example. And I think it also comes back to balance, right? No one wants to spend their whole day, or hopefully no one wants to spend if you look at a computer screen all day, you probably don’t want your social life, your friendships, your romantic life to also take place at that same computer. So I think there’s also just a case for, we got to mix it up. I love my office and sitting here and again, talking to you. And then after this, I’ll probably need to get in the car and just go somewhere else. Maybe go for a drive or go get a coffee, go get some exercise.

So I think some of it just comes down to what does it look like to live a balanced life? And I think it’s kind of cool that we are a paradox or the ways that we require different things. I need to sit still and have a conversation. I actually think the Zoom calls have helped me learn about presence because it’s one of the only times I’m not looking at my phone or thinking about the next place I have to be. I’m actually looking at people and listening and also feeling seen and heard. But then I also know, hey, I also need to sleep. I need to exercise. I want to go surfing. I need to walk my dog. And so I think it’s kind of cool to just think what does it look like to be a whole person? And I find myself thinking more about connection and relationship and then technology simply as a tool that can help foster that and can help that. But I also think if you live, sometimes I talk to people and they go, man, I don’t have any friends who live where I live. And to me, that’s really sad.

I realized we’re all dealt different cards. It costs money to move. It costs different amounts of money to live in different places. But I love to at least ask the question like, hey, what would it look like to live somewhere you feel good about? What would it look like to live somewhere where either you have friends or you feel like you have a head start or you could imagine some like-minded folks? What does it look like to prioritize community to the point that we’re willing to move to have it?

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