Dr. Nathaan Demers of ‘Grit Digital Health’: 5 Things We Can Each Do To Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic
Growth Mindset: As stated above, we need to dispel the myth of magical friendship. We can all contribute to this by simply sharing the vulnerable moments in our lives where we felt lonely and the actions we took to overcome it. This can help in two ways: 1). Sharing that forming social connections takes time and effort. You get out what you put in. 2). Forming friendships is not a “fixed quality” — meaning one is either a social butterfly or not.
As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’ I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Nathaan Demers.
Dr. Nathaan Demers is a clinical psychologist with experience in a variety of settings as a clinician, including adolescent and college populations. In addition to his clinical work, he has implemented a variety of programs at the state/regional level and completed his dissertation on the construct of “maturity.” Nathaan has unique expertise with behavioral health promotion and suicide prevention on campus and is the VP & Director of Clinical Programs with Grit Digital Health, the team who developed YOU at College.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?
Growing up in a multiracial household, as an active traveler, and passionate athlete, I have always been interested and passionate about people, behaviors, and cultures. This curiosity led me to an enriching career as a clinical psychologist, with a few twists and turns along the way. My curiosity for psychology was confirmed at my first class at Middlebury College at 8:30am Monday morning when an incredibly vibrant and passionate professor, Laura Basili, Ph.D. entered the room and exclaimed, “Welcome to Psyc101, the course that changed my life.” Well, as you can guess, I followed suit. I thereafter declared psychology as my major and undertook a handful of internships within the field, the most formative at Montana Academy, one of the nation’s premier therapeutic boarding schools for adolescents.
After graduation, I sought my doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Denver Graduate School of Professional Psychology. During my training I worked in a variety of settings including community mental health, inpatient Neu/Burn ICU’s, integrated care, and college counseling. I also wrote my dissertation on the construct of maturity and how we can bolster this attribute in students to ensure they have the tools they need to cope. While primarily focused on developing my clinical skills, an opportunity to assistant coach the Middlebury Men’s Soccer team led me to ask many systemic questions within the field of behavioral health — specifically focusing on ways to serve underrepresented adolescent and young adult populations outside the confines of traditional 1:1 therapy. This led me to undertake a postdoc with the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education — Behavioral Health Program, where I worked to implement systems of behavioral healthcare in rural and underserved areas of the U.S. and American Territories in the Pacific.
From there, in 2016 I was lucky enough to join the team at Grit Digital Health, with the shared mission of developing digital prevention-based technologies to improve the mental health and wellbeing of countless individuals. It was a no brainer — I am lucky to utilize my clinical skills and systemic knowledge of the field on a daily basis.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I would be lying if I said I could pick just one. I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of incredible individuals, striving to be their best selves despite incredibly difficult life circumstances. These experiences continue to reinforce the incredibly resilient nature of humans when provided the right supports. One experience that does stand out was working on the inpatient intensive care unit at the closest hospital to the location of the Aurora Theatre Shooting. The response from emergency responders, medical staff, support people, family members, and even strangers was unlike anything I had imagined. While equal parts total chaos and intentionality in supporting those injured, supporting the psychological recovery of this trauma both in the immediate aftermath and longer term was equally a highlight of my career and one of the most difficult professional challenges I have experienced. While not without sleepless nights, the experience again shed light on the incredible resilience of individuals and exceptional power of interconnected support networks.
Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
I led an 8-day canoe trip down the Smith River in Montana for a group of adolescents in behavioral health treatment. The Smith River is an incredibly scenic and remote part of the country. Once you are on the river, you’re on it until you are done with no cell service, road crossings or anything between. On day two of the trip, two of our adolescents hit a rock, flipped their canoe and due to a lack of fastening, lost ALL of our stoves, cookware, and several days worth of food. As a trip leader of ten adolescents in varying points in their recovery process, I had the incredibly important role of helping our group remain calm while also devising a plan. First and foremost, remaining composed, logical, and transparent were essential to managing our groups running minds. Do we push ourselves and our bodies the rest of the way, or stay the course and get creative with the supplies at hand? After an hour of deliberation with my co-leads, we decided to stay the course to avoid rushing and risking additional accidents. We comprised a plan of rationing our food, using our one fishing rod to supplement (of which we only had moderate luck), and making cookware from what we had (the highlight — homemade utensils from branches and one student even using his broken glasses quite creatively as a spoon). Again, I was reminded of the incredible resilience of individuals, being able to overcome countless obstacles and life circumstances when working alongside one another and leaning into, rather than rejecting support. There were countless laughs around all aspects of the situation.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We have a handful of really exciting projects at present. If I had to pick one, Nod our app to combat the issue of loneliness is the most exciting. As highlighted by this series, loneliness reached epidemic levels prior to the pandemic and has only been exacerbated in light of it. And a little known fact, Gen Z is the loneliness living generation, contrary to what many individuals might think. It’s been attributed as a major factor to many students’ decisions to drop out, having significant implications both to their respective institutions, as well as their overall health and future success in accruing debt without achieving a degree. We began this work back in 2018 in partnership with Hopelab — a nonprofit social innovation lab based in San Francisco — by kicking off a 18 month research spring focused on the topic of loneliness. We interviewed over 100 students and 50 experts in the process and gained invaluable insights to the experience of students now-a-days, and thus how to intervene. We quickly learned that loneliness was at epidemic levels back in 2018 and obviously the needs have only been exacerbated in light of COVID. For example, we know that over 80% of students report increased loneliness since the start of COVID, with another 63% saying it’s difficult to stay connected. We have launched a handful of college campuses nationwide, have interest from 10’s of others, and are also looking into expanding into the highschool audience within the coming year. We are also really proud to have just published a peer reviewed article in the Journal of Medical Internet Research Mental Health highlighting Nod’s initial efficacy in reducing loneliness and depression for college students, while also supporting improved sleep quality, social support, and intention to return to campus. In addition, we were a finalist for Fast Company’s Best Apps for Social Good in 2020, speaking to the importance of our student centered research and co-design, melding research and science to develop a successful intervention. With this foundation, we are excited to be able to expand this to have greater reach and impact on this significant challenge pressing colleges across the nation.
Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?
As a clinical psychologist, I have spent the majority of my career working with adolescent and young adult populations. But more specifically, rather than focusing my career on what’s wrong and trying to fix it (i.e. waiting until a student presents to therapy for symptoms of anxiety, depression, or loneliness), I’ve focused my career on how we can prevent these symptoms from developing in the first place. As I mentioned, I completed my dissertation on the construct of maturity, specifically assessing a tool which can measure the construct to screen and provide students missing skills early in adolescence to avoid the development of subsequent challenges. This mindset has been persistent throughout the last five years of my career focusing on how to bolster student grit and resilience to foster greater self-awareness, mental health, well-being, and subsequent success. As a member of the joint Hopelab and Grit Digital Health team, I joined our team’s 18 month research sprint gaining a comprehensive understanding of the experience of loneliness of today’s college students, both from a research and design perspective. I’m not sure there are too many teams out there who have taken as deep of a dive as we have. The insights we gained in that process were invaluable in subsequently developing Nod, but also are major contributions to the higher ed space having been asked to speak at a number of national conferences on the topic.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?
We are less resilient when not connected. Research consistently highlights that social connection is correlated with increased happiness, positive emotions, stronger immune system functioning, academic and economic success, and longevity. On the flip side, experiencing loneliness places individuals at greater risk for anxiety and depression, poor sleep quality, substance use and abuse, decreased immune system functioning, drop out, and suicidal ideation.
On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?
As highlighted in the above response, loneliness impacts individuals in just about every aspect of their lives, from mental and physical health, to overall career success, and everything between. When individuals experience loneliness, they are not able to be their best selves, thus greatly impacting their ability to bring their best to society leading to lost productivity, increased healthcare costs, overall less resilience and connected communities.
The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.
Like all human behaviors and psychological phenomena, the root causes are extremely multifaceted. But here are three factors which contribute to the issue of loneliness amongst adolescent and young adult populations today:
The Myth of Magical Friendship: In undertaking our 18 month research process where we spoke with over 100 students, our joint Hopelab and Grit Digital Health team found a handful of themes related to loneliness. One of the most significant — many students have a belief that friendships are simply supposed to happen, seemingly magically. After all, as the saying goes “college is the best four years of your life”, right? This myth is reinforced in the media and even prospective college materials — depicting students stepping foot on campus their first year and finding their best friends for life alongside their academic passions and a meaningful career path. We know this is not the case of everyone, and in face is rarely the case for anyone. Interestingly, many students acknowledge that maintaining familial relationships takes time and energy when growing independent and going to college, same with romantic relationships which take self-reflection and conscious effort. However, when it comes to friendships many reported that it “would feel weird to try.” The reality is, building and deepening social connections takes time and effort just like any other relationship. Culturally, we need to alter this narrative to ensure adolescents and young adults know that with time and effort, they can achieve the friendships they want and desire, but the fact is, it takes time and effort.
In-Person Connections: A student who graduated high school in 2015 has had 50% less in-person social interaction than a teenager who graduated high school in 2000. When I had to find a phone number or figure out what time a movie was playing, I called and spoke with an operator or the ticket office. If I wanted to hang out with friends, the only option to do so was catch them in the neighborhood or get a ride to the mall. And if I wanted to talk to a romantic interest, I had to either call their house phone or knock on the front door and explain why to Katie’s dad why I wanted to see her. Now, digital natives have their support networks at their fingertips, supposably streamlining the ability to connect; however, this removes many of the human touches of these interactions. These many experiences that were built into everyday life provide countless opportunities to practice our social skills, develop resilience, and our sense of selves in relation to others. As technology has thwarted the need for many of these interactions, digital-natives simply have less practice making it difficult when thrown into a new environment, which often happens when one goes to college.
HOW we use technology: While some use of technology is directly associated with higher rates of stress, anxiety, and depression, the reality is that technology also provides many protective factors and can builds resilience when productively utilized. One example on the harmful side is the act of “social snacking”, which is the idea of turning to an app like Facebook or Snapchat to scroll through and like people’s posts when feeling lonely as opposed to calling and actually connecting. This can lead to feelings of discontentment and disconnection in young people. However, turning to technology for video call or to send a personal message to a friend when feeling lonely can be a lifeline, fostering feelings of connection and building resilience in vulnerable times.
Ok. it is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.
Growth Mindset: As stated above, we need to dispel the myth of magical friendship. We can all contribute to this by simply sharing the vulnerable moments in our lives where we felt lonely and the actions we took to overcome it. This can help in two ways: 1). Sharing that forming social connections takes time and effort. You get out what you put in. 2). Forming friendships is not a “fixed quality” — meaning one is either a social butterfly or not. Yes, some individuals are more introverted vs. extroverted, but regardless of where one lies on this continuum, putting in conscious effort can lead to results. This can foster a “grown mindset” — the understanding that with time and effort one can improve their social connections. We can also find ways for students to share their experiences of overcoming loneliness, as afterall, students want to hear from other students, not an old psychologist who went to college a decade ago.
Tools to Try: In order to support students in forming meaningful social connections, we need to provide support environments, tools, and experiences that feel safe to do so. We know that putting a handful of students in the same room is not going to help a lonely student (and is not possible in light of COVID). And furthermore, this can exacerbate feelings of loneliness as one is surrounded by people by still not able to connect. Thus, providing tools and environments that allow students to try out “friending” skills is essential. A major part of our app, Nod, does just that — it provides students will skills and mini-missions where they can practice the building blocks of friendships whether that be active listening, self-disclosure, or inviting/initiating. Students also have the option to practice these virtually or IRL (in real life) should they be on campus. Providing these ideas is essential as the overall goal of making friends is often too daunting of a task as a whole.
Self-Compassion: We have to help students have self-compassionate when they do experience setbacks, which are inevitable. Bumps in any social relationships are impossible to avoid and ensuring students have the tools and resilience to persist through these setbacks is essential. For example, Nod includes reflections based in cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness based self-compassion that can assist a student following a set-back, ensuring they applaud themselves for trying and harnessing their motivation to persist.
Focus Attention Towards Others: Research indicates that when an individual is feeling lonely (or experiencing symptoms of depression), they are more likely to be overly self-critical in social interactions. The result, many interactions that don’t get to a deeper level as they have a hard time opening up in fear of rejection. The remedy, providing tips, tools, and stories of other students overcoming this barrier and exercises/tools to try. As an example, Nod is filled with testimonials from students regarding their experience and how they overcame this aspect of their experience.
Listen!: The reality is, many college administrators did not grow up as digital natives. Thus, it is essential that we take the time to genuinely develop an understanding and empathy for the challenges that students experience when it comes to forming meaningful social connections in today’s world. This is essential both pre, during, and post COVID. Student needs are ever evolving and if we do not listen and co-design interventions with students, our interventions will never connect.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
As we all know, there are an incredible amount of inequities in the world — social justice, health, economic, etc. — all of which are interconnected. As a clinician, I firmly believe in the biopsychosocial model, which is just a fancy way of saying that our biology, psychology, and social spheres all contribute to our well-being and ability to succeed. Accordingly, I one day aspire to start a program, app, or movement that helps users donate and build their savings at the same time. I have not gone beyond the simple idea of it, but here’s the idea. When making a decision to spend a few dollars on a purchase that we don’t actually need, whether it be an ice cream after dinner, eating out, or a new shirt that one does not really need — instead take the cost of that item and put half the dollars in savings, and donate the other to a cause of your choice. We all make small decisions like this everyday that could have a HUGE impact both in terms of working to prevent social inequities, connecting us to a greater sense of purpose, while also increasing personal financial security.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
As a passionate soccer player, I would love the opportunity to meet Didier Drogba, one of the world’s most iconic players of all time. While he was an idol through my playing days, he was even more so off the field as a crusader of charitable causes. Growing up in the Ivory Coast, he has impacted countless lives through incredible acts to decrease poverty and provide education within his country. He donated his entire signing bonus from Chelsea FC (which also convinced the club to do the same) to build a much needed hospital in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. He has been called “a man who has taken on the responsibility of rebuilding his entire country” being a leader in ending Ivory Coast’s civil war in dramatic fashion, calling upon his country for peace after qualifying for the 2006 World Cup in a live interview. This quote sums it all up, “I have won many trophies in my time, but nothing will ever top helping win the battle for peace in my country. I am so proud because today in the Cote D’Ivoire we do not need a piece of silverware to celebrate.” Meeting someone who has seen so many aspects of life — from growing up in a war-torn nation, to being one of the most successful footballers in the world, all the while never forgetting the humanity we all share and working to help those he can. I’d be confident the conversation would be riveting on so many levels.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Nathaan Demers — LinkedIn
@Doc_Demers — Twitter
@Doc_Demers — Instagram
Dr. Nathaan Demers of ‘Grit Digital Health’: 5 Things We Can Each Do To Help Solve The Loneliness… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.