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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

After Social Distancing, This Dallas Architect Is Hoping For A 'Renaissance Of Connection'

AP Photo/Eric Gay
Signs that assist with social distancing are used by shoppers who wait in line at a grocery store in Austin, Texas, Wednesday, March 25, 2020.

Like many North Texans, Erin Peavey is spending more time at home these days. She and her family have made changes to their daily routine.

"My husband and I, and our baby, we live in a neighborhood that still has these beautiful front porches," Peavey said, "and so we've taken to, every dinner, we sit outside on the front porch as a family and just wave and talk to all of our neighbors that are coming through, because you understand that you're all in this thing together."

As Peavey and her family adjust to social distancing, their front porch has become a gateway for connection. Peavey, a licensed architect and vice president at the Dallas-based firm HKS, recently published a reportaround this idea, looking at how the built environment can shape social well-being. 

She drew upon research that shows loneliness and isolation can be detrimental to physical and mental health, and Peavey said purposeful design can counter that. Her study looks at the significance of "third places," everyday spaces like libraries, parks and coffee shops that allow diverse groups of people to come together.

Peavey said certain design choices can draw people together in these "third places." Factors like walkability and shared seating provide built-in ways for people to cross paths.

"If you're designing a new office building or a new apartment complex, how often are you asked, 'What are you doing to serve your community?'" Peavey said. "'How does this building help serve that local community and help people to connect with one another?'"

Now, as the region adopts shelter-in-place orders, there are fewer opportunities for that spontaneous connection. Peavey worries about what she calls a "social recession." The termwas popularized by former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. It centers on the idea that the longer we go without interacting with others, the more our social bonds start to erode.

"I look at this period of time that we're in, and the warnings of a social recession to come, and just think, 'Well, this is also a health crisis,'" Peavey said.

Isolation can exacerbate mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, said Bonnie Cook, executive director of the nonprofit Mental Health America of Greater Dallas.

The group offers a series of anonymous online teststhat allow people to screen themselves for different mental health conditions. Cook said earlier this month, the number of people screening for anxiety jumped 12%.

"So obviously, as the number of cases of COVID-19 increase, so does the associated anxiety and depression," Cook said, "and research continually shows the link between social isolation and loneliness."

The need for care appears to be growing, and Mental Health America of Greater Dallas is trying to keep pace. Their weekly support group meetings have moved online, and Cook said they're seeing higher attendance in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. 

"We are seeing with our support groups the need for additional encouragement and additional thoughts of, 'You can do this,'" Cook said. "'You can manage an electronic system. You can manage being alone, and we can support you. It's just going to have to be from a distance.'"

People may be isolated, but they're still trying to connect, whether it's in online support groups, or neighbors waving hello from their porches. Erin Peavey is hopeful this period of distancing will highlight the value of spaces that bring people together.

"Throughout the ages, there have been these dark periods and then these renaissances that happen afterwards," Peavey said, "and it is really my fervent wish that we have a renaissance of connection coming out of this, and part of that is going to be investing in places of connection."

Loneliness+BuiltEnvironment_Peavey-2020 by cdhdavis on Scribd

Syeda Hasan is the Elections Editor and Reporter at KERA. Before moving into that role, she covered mental health at the station. A Houston native, her journalism career has taken her to public radio newsrooms around Texas.