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The importance of connections



There has been much recent concern that many people will suicide as the devastation wrought by COVID plays out. Accordingly, the government has pledged $48,000,000 to mental health programs. The commitment, though small relative to the need, is to be welcomed. It also raises wider questions about the recovery from the crisis and the role of government in it.

Lifeguard training (Photo by Margarida CSilva/Unsplash)

After the Pol Pot era it was commonly said that about a third of the people who were traumatised benefited from therapy, a third came through the experience without intervention, and another third remained traumatised. After similar barbarism in the Balkans, local shoe-string projects proved particularly helpful, including enabling women to come together in church choirs. Culturally women were restricted in leaving their homes, Church activities were acceptable. The coming together and all the social activities that went with the singing had an extraordinary effect.

This story suggests that in recovering from catastrophic events we need to look beyond the simple defining of problems, finding solutions that match them and naming agencies responsible to fix them. We need to be curious about the persons involved, their interlocking relationships which have contributed to the trauma and the possibilities for healing within those relationships. This may prove to be more effective and even less economically costly.

Although this is common sense, it is not readily received in a culture with a digitalised understanding of people in society, which sees human beings as irreducible individuals, like single pieces of information. In such a view the most important human relationships are economic. The focus of government must be to foster them.

How thin this view is was shown in the response to COVID-19, when governments rightly accepted their responsibility to protect people’s lives, including supporting their relationships to shelter, family, income and food. They took control of economic relationships in order to preserve lives and prevent illness, taking on debt to keep people alive and businesses to survive. Governance, human well-being and personal initiative for a while seemed connected to a goal larger than the unfettered freedom of individuals or enterprises.

As we enter the time of recovery, we risk returning to lazy ways of looking at human life, including the economy. Really, apart from considering the detail of each problem, we need to consider all the relationships that shape the persons involved. Mental illness in real people is not separable from their relationships to family, to their past, to food and drink, to reputation, to work and to shelter and home. These relationships, too, are inseparable from those between businesses, government departments and media. 


'If local relationships wither, society will wither with them. This is to say nothing of relationships to the natural world on which the future of any immediate recovery will depend.'


Disturbance in any of these relationships can trigger mental illness, the desire to be rid of life and despair and withdrawal from all relationships with friends. Suicide is not a phenomenon that can be treated separately from the social relationships and economic settings that contribute to it.

Similarly, when considering the recovery from isolation we must look broadly at its effect on human beings and all the relationships that shape the quality of their lives. Certainly, the economic relationships between sellers and buyers, suppliers and sellers, proprietors, owners and workers,  banks and clients, the many people in the production chain and communities and local shops are certainly vital for a recovery that will benefit all people in society.

But equally important are the relationships that form communities and give people hope — the council workers on golf courses, football grounds, coaches, volunteers, the people who sing, dance and read poetry in pubs, musical groups, entertainers, managers of venues and so on. The deeper sense of belonging to a multiplicity of local communities, whether churches, choirs, sporting clubs, pubs, music societies, galleries or school committees, the richer people are and the more committed they will be to the common good. If local relationships wither, society will wither with them. This is to say nothing of relationships to the natural world on which the future of any immediate recovery will depend.

In a time of recovery these local groups and the people who animate them will be at risk. That is why the recovery cannot be business led. Businesses, small and large, will have a central part to play in creating the conditions for recovery, but initially government will have a more important role. It will be responsible for ensuring that in the recovery all can live a decent life and that the economic recovery serves all the people and is felt to do so. Part of that remit will be to enable the flourishing of small groups that help form communities. The recovery should be encouraged at the smallest level of society possible and the highest level necessary. In a connected society vulnerable people are more likely to find alternatives to taking their own lives.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Lifeguard training (Photo by Margarida CSilva/Unsplash)

If you, or someone you know, need help, please contact Lifeline at 13 11 14.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, COVID-19, coronavirus, mental illness, auspol



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Existing comments

Thank you, Fr Andy. This analysis and reflections should be required reading for all with a role to play in recovery - governments, business and for the community as well.

Denis Fitzgerald | 21 May 2020  

The pandemic has caused disruption to each person in the community. Some people have been impacted greatly, with loss of income and separation from vibrant community roles. Others have adapted reasonably well to changed circumstances and even found a new outlook particularly in relation to their 'old life'. Support for people who are doing it tough should be a top priority for the government, both at local and state/federal level. Some time ago, I read a book by Louis de Bernieres titled "Notwithstanding" about an eccentric group of villagers living in rural England. Each person unique and formed into community.

Pam | 21 May 2020  

What you said here is summed up well in John Donne's poem 'No Man Is An Island'. We already had a large number of people who were isolated before the COVID-19 crisis. I wonder what happened to them at its height and as things became more 'normal'? The rise in suicide in Australia is always a cause for concern, but, as with most of our military veterans, many who do not suicide due to the consequences of the recent pandemic will carry on damaged in themselves. How can they be nudged gently towards healing? What you say about grass roots groups is right because a healthy group can help people to do what Jesus said to the invalid at the Pool in Bethesda 'Get up! Pick up your bed and walk'. John 5: 6-8. I'm not suggesting miraculous healing is the cure in the instances you are speaking of but it is amazing what good, functional groups can do for people. The society you describe pre-COVID-19, which was based mainly on economics, would, I consider be 'sick' and in need of healing.

Edward Fido | 21 May 2020  

The way the world was living was unsustainable with massive global debt driving the global economy and pollution causing climate change. We could all see the economic collapse coming but it took Covid19 to demonstrate how mankind's over-reliance on global supply chains and interconnectedness is his achille's heel.

Cam Russell | 21 May 2020  

The smallest human unit is the group. In 1953 J.L. Moreno a descenting Freudian, the father of Psychodrama published 'Who Shall Survive'. He wrote about exactly what you are saying, Andrew. He posed the notion of 'the social atom'-the smallest group of relationships each person needs to survive. He mapped whole communities. He showed how to map group choices and relationships. He dealt with isolation, rejection as well as the 'stars' of groups. An obscure fact is that I was the first person to be a qualified Sociometrist. Mother Therese is credited with saying that loneliness is the greatest suffering. And as you point out currently an enforced suffering for many while many others have found creative ways of connecting, using the latest gear.

Michael D. Breen | 21 May 2020  

Just and addition. 'Sociometry' is the name Moreno gave to his inventions about group relationships.

Michael D. Breen | 22 May 2020  

Praise God, Andy, for your gift with words and the ways in which you knit them together to serve the common good in so very many contextually applied aspects of everyday life and its experiences, especially in the social and cultural domain. A gift also to Eureka Street, highlighting the unique role a consulting editor must play in order to help problematise, strike a chord and invariably hit the contemporary mark!

Michael Furtado | 23 May 2020  

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