Social connections are essential

Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final installment in a series on mental health.

By nature, human beings are social beings.

While some private time is necessary to recharge and maintain emotional equilibrium, people who are isolated and alone for much of their days will invariably be unhappy.

There is a reason why solitary confinement is implemented as a punitive measure in prisons — extended isolation is difficult and unpleasant.

“Most people are very social creatures,” said Dr. Joseph Antonowicz, medical director at UPMC Altoona Behavioral Health Services. “(People) don’t do well with being hermits. Even monks have socialization. It is very important in keeping people physically and mentally healthy.”

“Some studies have shown that people who have a lot of family and friends around, and/or who are actively involved in a church — and not simply going there once a week — live longer,” Antonowicz added.

The support of family and friends is particularly important to people who are living with any type of mental-health condition.

Isolation can contribute to the development of mental-health problems, as well as worsen already existing mental difficulties.

But people struggling with problems like major depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia may often face a difficult, catch-22 situation when attempting to establish and/or maintain social connections.

A severely-depressed person may often lack the initiative — and in some cases, the ability — to interact well socially with others.

In many cases, the depression must often be successfully treated before a plan to improve the person’s social life can be implemented.

“The illnesses themselves (can cause isolation),” Antonowicz said. “When you’re really depressed, you tend to isolate yourself.”

And then there is the fact that the more severe symptoms of mental illness — which manifest themselves in the delusions of schizophrenia or the agitated, frenzied, manic state of bipolar disorder — may cause family, friends or acquaintances of an ill person to withdraw from and shun the ill person.

“Some families don’t react well to these illnesses,” Antonowicz said. “Families and neighbors can pull back without even thinking about it.”

As much as it is possible, people struggling with mental illnesses should take the initiative to develop and cultivate a satisfying system of social interaction.

“Even if you have just one connection with another person, that can often be enough,” said Denis Navarro, retired UPMC Altoona Behavioral Health Services outpatient supervisor and clinical specialist. “You don’t need a lot of people. Even if the most isolated person can have somebody to call or somebody to do something with, that’s enough.

“A therapist’s role is to try to empower the client to take charge of his or her life at a level that they’re comfortable with,” Navarro added. “Ordinarily, a person’s closest bonds would be with spouse or family, but that doesn’t always work out. A relationship that is fulfilling (is the important thing).”

At the same time, treating the symptoms of severe mental illness is the first priority.

“When you’re in the grips of a severe depressive episode, everything seems pointless,” Antono­wicz said. “When you recover, things become easier to deal with. Improving your social network is harder to do when you’re in the midst of a depression. It gets easier as the depression starts to lighten up.”

Psychotherapy, and medication when necessary, can help an ill person to improve.

Once a person is stabilized, a certain amount of individual initiative is necessary in social interactions.

It is often essential for a person to accept that dinner invitation from a friend or friends rather than choosing to sit at home alone watching television.

It can be important for a person who has been struggling with depression to call a friend and make plans to go fishing, golfing, bowling, shopping or doing whatever else may bring pleasure to the day.

Going to a movie with a spouse or significant other usually beats spending the evening on the couch sleeping or eating junk food.

For some people recovering from particularly troublesome symptoms, community-support programs can provide a social outlet.

“I’ve heard people say that the most important thing they get from those programs is the socialization aspect,” Antonowicz said.


Sources of help/assistance for mental illnesses

Organization: The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Phone: Toll-free, 1-800-950-NAMI.


Organization: The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Phone: Toll-free, 1-866-615-6464.


Notable: The National Institute of Mental Health offers brochures and publications about various types of mental-health disorders, as well as the opportunity for individuals and families to participate in clinical trials that help doctors with research and treatment.

Organization: International Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Foundation (IOCDF).

Phone: 1-(617) 973-5801.


Email address:

Notable: The IOCDF is a world-wide organization that provides treatment resources for individuals and families affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The IOCDF’s quarterly OCD Newsletter provides information on obsessive-compulsive disorder and its treatment, along with information on clinical trials, treatment facilities around the United States, and news about the latest cutting-edge developments in research concerning the disorder. People affected by OCD can, by contacting the IOCDF, also register to attend the annual National OCD Conference that is held in a different city in the United States each year. Among other offerings, the OCD Conference features presentations by national experts on the treatment of OCD.

Organization: Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.

Phone: Toll-free, 1-800-826-3632.

Website: www.dsballiance/org/site.

Organization: Health Resources and Services Administration.

Phone: Toll-free, 1-877-604-HRSA or 1-877-464-4772.


Notable: This website has information on finding affordable health care, including health centers that offer care on a sliding-fee scale.

Organization: Mental Health America.

Phone: Toll-free, 1-800-949-NHMA (for referrals in one’s local area).


Notable: Founded in 1909, Mental Health America is the nation’s leading community-based non-profit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and the overall mental health of all Americans..

Organization: Anxiety and Depression Association of America

Phone: 1-240-485-1001.


Organization: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Phone: Toll-free, 1-877-SAMHSA-7 (1-877-726-4727).

National SAMHSA helpline: Toll free, 1-800-662-4357.


Notable: The mission of SAMHSA is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities.

Organization: Alcoholics Anonymous.

Phone: Toll-free, 1-800-839-1686.


Organization: Narcotics Anonymous.

Phone: Toll-free, 1-800-775-8750.


Phone helpline: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Phone: Toll-free, 1-800-273-TALK (8255).


Notable: This national helpline is open 24 hours, seven days a week for callers who are in crisis, and need immediate support and intervention. Trained crisis workers are available, and all calls are toll-free and confidential. Calls go to the nearest crisis center in the Lifeline national network. These centers provide crisis counseling and mental-health referrals. If the situation is potentially life-threatening, calls should be made to 911 or individuals should go/be taken to a hospital emergency room.

Phone helpline: National Eating Disorders Association and Referral Helpline.

Phone number: Toll-free, 1-800-931-2237.

Phone helpline: National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

Phone number: Toll-free, 1-847-831-3438.

Phone helpline: National Center for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Phone number: Toll-free, 1-800-273-8235.

State and local sources of help/assistance

for mental illnesses

(Note: All sources of help and assistance in and around Blair County are not listed here. For an even more complete listing, consult the telephone book and look under listings for “mental health,” “substance abuse,” and “addiction.”)

Organization: NAMI Pennsylvania (state).

Phone: 1-(717) 238-1514.

Email address:


Organization: NAMI Blair County.

Helpline: (814) 942-4779.

Email address:


Organization: Blair County Community Crisis Center.

Address: UPMC Altoona Regional Health System, 620 Howard Ave., Altoona, Pa. 16601.

Phone: (814) 946-2141.

Notable: Counselors are available on a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week basis to deal with crisis intervention and make appropriate referrals for psychological and/or psychiatric treatment.

Organization: Contact Altoona.

Helpline: (814) 946-9050.

Office: (814) 946-0531.

Notable: This line is staffed 24 hours, seven days-a-week by compassionate community volunteers who provide callers with an opportunity to discuss problems such as loneliness and grief, as well as to obtain appropriate referrals.

Organization: Home Nursing Agency Adult Behavioral Health Services.

Address: 500 East Chestnut Ave., Altoona, Pa. 16601.

Office: (814) 943-0414.

Toll-free: 1-800-445-6262.

Notable: Home Nursing Agency offers a community-support program and a partial-hospitalization day treatment program.

Organization: Home Nursing Agency Children’s Community Health Center.

Address: 400 Lakemont Park Boulevard, Suite 100, Altoona, Pa. 16602.

Phone: (814) 946-0261.

Organization: Peer Star.

Address: 2900 Plank Road, Suite 8, Altoona, Pa. 16601.

Phone: (814) 201-2091.

Notable: Peer Star is a mental-health support service in which individuals who have recovered from mental illnesses help individuals who are currently experiencing symptoms of mental disorders.

Organization: The Arc of Blair County.

Phone: (814) 946-1011.

Notable: The Arc serves individuals with intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities, including those with mental-health disorders.

Organization: ACRP Alternative Communty.

Address: 1815 Valley View Boulevard, Altoona, Pa. 16602.

Phone: (814) 942-9425.

Notable: ACRP provides counseling services and community integration services for individuals with mental illnesses.

Organization: Primary Health Network.

Address: 620 Howard Ave., Altoona, Pa. 16601.

Phone: (814) 942-5000.

Notable: Primary Health Network provides counseling and medication management services.

Organization: UPMC Altoona Regional Health System.

Address: 620 Howard Ave., Altoona, Pa. 16601.

Phone: (814) 946-2141.

Notable: This hospital’s behavioral-health department provides counseling and medication management services.

Organization: Nulton Diagnostic & Treatment.

Address: 2900 Plank Road, Suite 7, Altoona, Pa. 16602.

Phone: (814) 944-4722.

Notable: Evaluation, counseling services, and medication management are provided.

Organization: Pyramid Healthcare Inc.

Address: 270 Lakemont Park Boulevard, Altoona, Pa. 16602

Phone: (814) 940-2039 or toll-free 1-888-694-9996.

Notable: Inpatient substance-abuse treatment and rehabilitation are provided.

Organization: Discovery House.

Address: 3436 Route 764, Allegheny Township, Duncansville, Pa. 16635.

Phone: (814) 944-7000.

Notable: Substance-abuse treatment and rehabilitation are provided.

Organization: Cove Forge Behavioral System.

Address: RD1, Williamsburg, Pa. 16693.

Phone: (814) 832-2131.

Notable: Inpatient and outpatient treatment for substance-abuse and mental-health problems are provided.

Support group: UPMC Altoona Regional Health System Depression and Bipolar Self-Help Group.

Phone: (814) 889-2141.

Location: UPMC Altoona Regional Health System, Bedford Room.

Meeting times: Each Wednesday from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Support group: UPMC Altoona Regional Health System group for those who have lost a loved one through suicide.

Phone: (814) 889-2141.

Location: Access Center, Building C, Blair Medical Center, 501 Howard Ave., (across from UPMC Altoona).

Meeting times: Third Wednesday of each month from 7 to 8:30 p.m.