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Mental health counselors: humans need to be together

A socially distant walk is the closest some friends have been able to get in the pandemic. (Alyce Collett/YJI)

Health and safety rules brought on by covid-19 mean people are unusually apart from others, forced to self-isolate for weeks or months at a time.

As time goes on, many yearn for human contact, finding it increasingly difficult and unnatural to be alone.

In a series of interviews with Youth Journalism International reporters, mental health professionals in different countries explained why humans have such a powerful need to be with other people.

Michelle Collins, a Houston, Texas-based trauma counselor, said there is much research on how the brain is wired to be social.

Michelle Collins

Collins explained that physical interaction makes children feel the pleasant effects of the hormone oxytocin, which the body releases when people are together and touch one another.

Human contact is so important to mental health that even something as simple as having a passing conversation with someone can change a person’s mood or change the course of a day.

“Humans have something called the Gregarious Instinct,” explained Paulina Véjar, a longtime school psychologist in Quito, Ecuador. She said that means “that it is part of our psychological structure to be part of a horde.”

Due to lockdowns and the isolation taking place this year, people are not getting as much of this hormone, according to Collins. 

Many mental health professionals interviewed for this project explained that the need to be with others is a key human characteristic, emphasizing that it is how people deal with problems.

“We are built for connections,” said Peri Gilbert-Reed, a counselor who works with children and adolescents in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Roseanne Erika Loquellaneo

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, this need to be together, see and talk with each other, and just enjoy the company of other people is even more apparent. 

Roseanne Erika Loquellaneo, a medical intern in the Philippines, said it’s true in a professional setting, too. 

“It’s always better for me to work in an environment full of people,” Loquellaneo said. 

Laura Reed, a counselor at Lincoln College in England, said being around other people makes people feel like part of a community and feel valued. 

Helen Butlin, a psychotherapist in Ontario, Canada, said the need to be with other people came from evolution. 

Helen Butlin

“We are pack creatures. Before humans developed the ability to make guns and things that protect us from predators, we had to rely on being in groups, on dividing up strengths and tasks and keeping the tribe fed,” said Butlin. “So the instinct to connect with physical contact and be in the presence of others is a deep biological imperative.”

This story was reported by Aileen Cevallos in Quito, Ecuador; Nisha Chandar-Nair in Lincoln, England; Chuying Huo in Ontario, Canada;  Katrina Machetta in Spring, Texas and Nivetha Nandakumar in Cardiff, Wales. It was  written by Aimee Shah and Aileen Cevallos. Alyce Collett in Melbourne, Australia made the cover photo.

Covid Mood is a global project by Youth Journalism International examining how the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 impacted mental health among the world’s young people. Its 17 news stories and accompanying photos and illustrations are by 21 students from a dozen nations on six continents. Together, they interviewed 56 teenagers and young adults in 18 countries and mental health professionals from five different nations. All Covid Mood stories are accessible here.

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