Free Hugs’ campaign underscores importance of social connectedness on the Hill

    Late last month, the Daily reported on recent initiatives taken by Health Service to detect depression among students at Tufts. With the percentage of college students suffering from depression steadily climbing, the Health Service office has been screening students to catch mental health problems, even if their symptoms are strictly physical. In this article, the Daily looks at a campus group whose goal is to use a physical gesture — a hug — to brighten the days of a demographic whose mental health is a critical concern.
    A small but growing group of Tufts students have gathered on street corners and outside Tisch Library with bold signs and outstretched arms in recent weeks to offer free hugs to any passersby.
    For one hugger, Sam, the gesture is a means of expressing social connection on a campus that she describes as being “standardized and digitalized to the point of dehumanization.”
    The members of “Free Hugs” were adamant that their identities remain anonymous, as they see their actions as more of an open movement, rather than a social group made up of individuals. As such, the names in this article have been changed.
    “Hugs are perhaps the simplest and most appreciated gift you can give,” Sam said. “Even the offer of a hug is a way of bringing someone back to the present, a way of making him or her stop and think for a moment, a way of changing someone’s mental modality.”
    Students who have encountered the huggers have had mixed reactions: Some begin walking at a faster pace so as to avoid the interaction entirely; others avoid eye contact and politely decline. And some chose to welcome the embrace.
    Sophomore Caitlin Kauffman declined a hug but stopped to inquire as to the huggers’ motivations. “We’re just spreading the love,” Kauffman was told.
    “I didn’t accept a hug because free love isn’t necessarily wanted love,” Kauffman said. “I would prefer love spreading through less tactile means … at least when it’s with a complete stranger.”
    While it remains to be seen whether the hugging initiative helps with social connectedness on campus, students, professors and other health professionals are studying the issue of social isolation with hopes to discover more long-term solutions.
    Shawn Achor serves as the head teaching fellow for “Positive Psychology,” one of Harvard University’s most popular courses, and said that strong personal relationships are integral to maintaining mental and social well-being.
    “Positive Psychology” aims to explore the psychological aspects of leading a happy and satisfying life. According to Achor, the quality of social interactions is of utmost importance.
    “Social support predicts our happiness perhaps more than anything else in life,” Achor said. “In a study of the top 10 percent of the happiest people, researchers found that the only characteristic that differentiated them from everyone else was the strength of their social relationships.”
    For some, however, social integration is a difficult hurdle to overcome. Sophomore Sean Smith described Tufts as having a wealth of academic and social opportunities, but feels that for many students, joining a club or engaging in a sport is a challenge in and of itself.
    Sophomore Emily Ringer echoed Smith’s sentiments.
     “When I was a freshman, at first I was intimidated to go to meetings and try new things,” she said. “Initially I had trouble reaching out to make new friends. Plus, with all the academic stress, it’s easy to let go of things like clubs or socializing, things that are actually really crucial to meeting more people.”
    In Achor’s psychology class, he conducts an exercise to help students translate their desires into habits that stimulate social connection. For 21 days, he asks his students to think of a positive action they would like to incorporate into their daily routines and then to start doing it once a day.
    “Changing up your routines helps expand your social network,” Achor said. “When you go to a party, try to talk to three people you normally wouldn’t have spoken with. Start more conversations with random people. Four out of five might end quickly, but the fifth might be a great new connection.”
    Dr. Julie Jampel, the supervising clinician at the Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Center, agreed that loneliness and depression are inextricably linked.
    “Basically, relationships are a huge part of being well adjusted and happy,” she said. “On the other hand, people who are isolated are often depressed.”
    In the spring of 2006, the University of Texas at Austin’s National Research Consortium of Counseling Centers in Higher Education found that over half of 26,000 college students from over 70 national colleges and universities had displayed suicidal thoughts at some point during their lifetime, according to a comprehensive online survey.
    And, according to a study by the American College Health Association, the level of depression on the college campus is rising: The rate of students reporting official diagnosis of depression increased 56 percent between 2000 and 2005, jumping from 10 percent to 16 percent.
    Dr. Jampel supports the practice of psychological screenings as a tool to catch cases of depression that may otherwise have gone untreated.
    “For people who are depressed and lonely, there are several reasons why it’s hard for them to speak up,” she said. “Oftentimes they don’t want to be a burden to their friends by expressing their feelings, [and sometimes], the depression can cause them to withdraw further from social interaction.”

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