group of friends smiling in a car

Bryan McCormick, professor in the Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, has been awarded a $2.5 million, five-year grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) to develop interventions that reduce social isolation and loneliness among people with serious mental illness (SMI).

“The rates of loneliness among this population are remarkably high compared to other adults,” McCormick says. “Feeling of loneliness and experiencing social isolation are more than a negative emotional experience. There is evidence to show that it is harmful in terms of longevity and brain function.”

Social distancing and stay-home recommendations for the COVID-19 pandemic caused many people to engage in less social contact and feel isolated, with studies showing higher rates of stress and depression. For people with disabilities, who often experience social isolation even in ordinary circumstances, these feelings are nothing new.

“I've talked to folks with serious mental illness after the pandemic, and they said, ‘Well, now people know what it’s like for us,’” McCormick says. The pandemic only exacerbated these feelings for many people with disabilities.

Much of McCormick’s research will explore social isolation and loneliness through the lens of “mattering,” a feeling of being needed, useful or important to others. “It sounds harsh, but there’s a quote from a Kurt Vonnegut book that says: “The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody.” So this idea of not being needed, that was really part of the orientation of the project.” 

McCormick’s team will work with local mental health providers to survey individuals with SMI, measure their sense of mattering, and develop an intervention aimed at enhancing it. That likely will involve connecting people with meaningful volunteer activities where they can engage socially, build connections with others, experience feelings of mattering and improve their sense of purpose.

“It’s really to establish and test an intervention that can be delivered by community mental health centers and personnel, having it become part of health practice,” McCormick explains. “In social support, we often ask people, ‘Who can you count on for a ride? Who can you count on for advice?’  But we never ask the reverse: ‘Who counts on you for a ride, for advice?’”

Being needed often results in having obligations, and obligations often have a negative connotation, McCormick says, but they have value in people’s lives.

“When you're out of networks of obligation, it's tough to structure your life. You're not needed to be anywhere at any time,” McCormick says. “That's sometimes the situation we're seeing with adults with serious mental illness. They don't need to be anywhere at any time, and they fall into a state of inertia in many ways. We don't typically see obligation as a positive thing. But it does have some very positive aspects and roles in our lives.”