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15 cigarettes a day - the health impact of loneliness and isolation

It’s been two years since the Yukon Association for Community Living started the My Life My Body Project. Over that time we have talked with many individuals with intellectual disabilities, their families, caregivers and support staff and we have heard one resounding theme.

Folks with intellectual disabilities are looking for connection and love just like the rest of us - and they are struggling to find it without the skills and the opportunities to do so.

Many of us reading this statement might focus on the love part - but what we’ve learned is that it’s really about the connection part. Humans are hardwired for connection. We crave it. It is a basic human need - like eating. And we will do all that we can with the tools that we have to get it. This is where folks with intellectual disabilities often get into trouble. Without the right tools they can harm themselves and others in the attempts to connect.

As staff and family members we are worried about the harm that can be caused. Our fears and worries are valid. We are often quick to acknowledge the potential harm of having friendships and relationships. Folks may be taken advantage of, abused or emotionally hurt. But sometimes we don’t recognize the harm that also can be caused by loneliness and social isolation that comes with not having the skills to build meaningful relationships.

Close relationships are one of the biggest predictors of happiness. And they can reduce the risk of early death by 50%. The effect on our health of not having human connection is the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

For individuals with intellectual disabilities, human connection can be hard to get. Over half report social isolation and a third have had NO contact with friends in over a year leaving them at a significantly higher risk of depression, anxiety, and early death. This month, we are sharing the stories of a few our community members, to showcase the positive impact of friendships and relationships in their lives and to talk about the role sexuality and healthy relationship education plays in creating vibrant lives. Sexuality is not just about sex. As Dave Hingsburger, sexuality and disability expert is fond of saying - “anyone can survive three days without sex, but even 1 day without any human connection can affect our mental health.” Sexuality education is about much more than bodies and babies. It’s about knowing yourself, knowing how to interact with others in the world safely, and how to build healthy and thriving relationships of all kinds. Every person needs human connection. Needs hand holding, hugs and kisses, to be seen and recognized and loved for who they are. As staff and family members we all have a role to play in ensuring the folks in our care have the tools they need to thrive. We can all be part of the solution by learning more about human sexuality and shifting our perspectives, by starting conversations with our loved ones and clients and by supporting access to high quality sexuality education to help those in our lives build the skills to thrive.

Want to learn more about all five pieces of the sexual self and how they affect our day to day life? Check out our online workshop here.

Not sure how to start the conversation? Download are what to talk about when tip sheet.

Visit our online workshops page for our video library about a range of sexuality topics.

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