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“Let people in.” With Beau Henderson & Andrew Dowling

At the individual level, the first step always starts with understanding. It’s very difficult for individuals to provide support for those suffering mental illness if they themselves don’t have an understanding of what that experience can be like. The good news is that it doesn’t take much to get a better understanding, even if you’ve […]

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At the individual level, the first step always starts with understanding. It’s very difficult for individuals to provide support for those suffering mental illness if they themselves don’t have an understanding of what that experience can be like. The good news is that it doesn’t take much to get a better understanding, even if you’ve never been touched by mental illness in your own life, either yourself or through someone close to you. Something as simple as reading stories about other people’s experiences can start you on the road to understanding and empathy.

At the community level, we’ve made great strides in the last decade or so but a lot more needs to be done. Social problems require social solutions, particularly in areas which have been hit by the decline in traditional community constructs to help communities respond to these issues — this is why I think we’re seeing a rise in new community-based organizations like Stitch.

At the government level, there needs to be greater recognition that none of these issues will be solved in isolation. We’ve found it surprisingly challenging to get government support for our initiatives around social isolation and loneliness, despite most leaders now recognizing it as a major issue. Social enterprises are stepping in to fill gaps not being met by government policy, but they still require support of government at all levels — local, regional, federal — in order to succeed.


As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Andrew Dowling.

Andrew Dowling is the Founder and CEO of Stitch, the world’s leading social community for older adults, and Founder of the non-profit charity WipeOutLoneliness.org. Andrew wrote his Master’s thesis on social enterprise a decade ago, and has spent the last ten years building and advising businesses which have a social impact. His current focus is on finding ways to address social isolation and loneliness, and in particular its impact on the health of older adults.

Prior to Stitch, Andrew spent over two decades building successful technology organizations in Australia, India, China and the US, and has served in multiple businesses in a wide range of roles and specialties. He holds MBAs from INSEAD in Singapore/France and Tsginhua University in China, and Bachelors of Engineering & Science from the University of Sydney.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I was born in Sydney, Australia, but spent my formative years growing up in a very small community on the edge of the Australian desert. Back then the rest of the world seemed very far away, something I could only dream of one day getting an opportunity to visit. That might go some way to explaining why I became so eager to explore other cultures as an adult. I ended up living and working all over the world, including the US, India, China and Europe. For me it highlighted not how different we all are, but how much we have in common, particularly when it comes to the importance of human connection.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?

Stitch is a global community focused on addressing loneliness and isolation for older adults, and on the impact that social isolation can have on both mental and physical health. For many years the social determinants of health were not well understood, and often seen as of secondary importance by governments, the health industry, and society more generally.

That has changed dramatically in the last decade, with a growing awareness of the profound impact that social isolation can have on our health and wellbeing. For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic has hammered this message home.

If you are over 60 and lonely, you are 45% more likely to die in the next 12 months than someone with good social connections, and the US Surgeon General ranks loneliness as having as severe a negative health impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Which is why it’s all the more astonishing when surveys such as the CIGNA US Loneliness Index reveals that 61% of adults sometimes or always feel lonely.

One of the problematic things about loneliness is that there is even more of a stigma about it than many other forms of mental illness. It’s becoming increasingly socially acceptable to admit to be suffering from depression, for example, but the same is not true of loneliness. In fact, in one of our surveys, more people said they would feel comfortable admitting to having a communicable disease than being lonely. The stigma surrounding the issue — perhaps because people feel that being lonely is somehow their fault — is as strong as it has ever been.

The reality is that periods of isolation and loneliness are inevitable as we age. Factors such as relocation, illness, divorce, distance and even death put pressure on our social circles to shrink. Stitch’s message is that isolation happens to everyone eventually; the question is what we do about it.

Stitch uses technology to help facilitate the process of reconnecting with like-minded individuals, through shared activities, interest groups, discussions, and one-on-one connections. What makes Stitch special, however, is that it is first and foremost a community, one which tries hard to provide its members a sense of purpose and belonging. Everything that happens in the community is driven by our members, who all understand that what they’re doing improves not just their own lives, but the lives of those around them.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

The first social enterprise I founded was called Tapestry. It was a simplified tablet computer designed for seniors who had been left behind by technological change, and it gave them a simple way to stay connected to their families and the community around them without needing to learn how to use technology.

Tapestry was received well by its users, and we found ourselves selling the solution to retirement living facilities in the US and Australia. Most of these places were set up to promote social activity, with golf courses, games rooms, that sort of thing, and most of the residents were significantly younger than Tapestry users.

To our surprise, many of them started telling us how isolated they felt, even in what was meant to be a social environment. They frequently asked us if we could introduce them to other people, as they felt so lonely. Using Tapestry to stay in touch was nice, but what they really wanted was real human connection.

The more we looked into the issue, the more we discovered loneliness and isolation affected a much larger range of people than just seniors. It affects everybody. And the statistics around the health impact of social isolation were truly astonishing. It was clear that this issue was even more important than the one we had originally set out to solve.

But the solution wasn’t simply to give people more access to technology, the way Tapestry was doing. We had been thinking about the problem through the prism of technology, but technology can’t be a solution to a social problem. The solution comes down to people. We needed to find ways that technology could just be a helpful tool to promote social connection, but the real impact would come from the people we could mobilize to make a difference. And thus, Stitch was born.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

When I was studying for my MBA, I remember sitting in our first lecture on social entrepreneurship. I had never heard of the concept before — this was over a decade ago — but it turned out to be a life-changing experience. Our lecturer was a global leader of the field and he sketched out an inspiring model of businesses designed to have a social impact. It sounded like the best idea I’d ever heard. I could barely control my excitement: I honestly honestly looked down to see the hairs on my arm standing on end. I knew then and there that I didn’t have a choice: I NEEDED to work in businesses that had a social impact. The only challenge was figuring out what that business should be.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

For me personally one of the big turning points for Stitch came after we had been running for a little over two years. At that point we had built the first version of our web site and established a membership base, but we still were oriented towards members who were looking to find a single companion, rather than bringing everyone together in a community that could create a network of multiple supporting relationships.

We organized a global get-together for Stitch members in Monterey, California, with members coming to stay from 20 different US states as well as Australia and Japan. It was a big event which took about 9 months to organize.

A couple of months before the event, someone in my immediate family tried to end their own life. It was an intensely traumatic time for all of us, and made it very difficult to focus on Stitch.

We had gotten through the worst of things by the time the event came around, but anyone who has dealt with depression before would know that things don’t get fixed overnight. I decided to travel to the event, but not without dealing with an enormous amount of stress; I felt I was barely holding it together myself.

Then the most incredible thing happened. On a walk with a handful of Stitch members, I opened up and spoke about what was happening in my life. How they responded shaped the direction Stitch has headed ever since.

It wasn’t just that they showed me enormous compassion and empathy, although that was certainly part of it. What truly made a difference, was that they shared their own stories of vulnerability, of dealing with mental illness themselves, or of caring for family members with similar stories. It turned out that many of the people I was with had direct person experience with similar issues, and as a result were able to offer me the sort of support I hadn’t even known I had needed.

The next few days crystallized the power and importance of community, and how authentic human connection can help save lives. We all rallied around each other, and started to reveal parts of ourselves that we hadn’t previously shown. I returned from the event with a feeling of well-being I hadn’t felt in months.

For me that was the moment that hammered home that being part of a supportive community, of a feeling of belonging, was key not just to my own well-being, but for what we were trying to achieve with Stitch. The concept of community has been at the heart of Stitch ever since.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

My wife has been a supporter of pretty much everything I’ve done over the last few decades, so it’s no surprise that she’s played a huge role helping me get through the ups and downs of building Stitch.

What came as a bit more of a surprise was how instrumental my teenage kids have been in keeping me going too. Creating Stitch has involved a number of sacrifices that have had a direct impact on them as a family, so it’s been a real gift to see how proud they are of what we’ve accomplished. Seeing Stitch through their eyes has made it so much easier to keep going through challenging times.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

Human beings tend to be scared about things they don’t fully understand, and I think part of the issue is that many people unconsciously stigmatize those with a mental illness because they simply haven’t had the experience to understand it fully.

There is also the fact that people tend to identify around mental illnesses far more than physical conditions. When someone has cancer, for example, it’s generally well understood that the disease is a condition that exists as its own entity. It’s an external entity that they pledge to “fight”. We don’t externalize mental illness the same way.

We frequently internalize mental conditions, either of our own or of others, and associate them with “who we are” at some level. As a result, we are often more reluctant to talk about these conditions with others, for fear we’ll be judged.

When I talk to Stitch members about loneliness, for example, many say they don’t want to admit to being lonely, as other people will assume there is something wrong with them in some way. Something as simple as loneliness is not an external condition, it’s seen as part of who we “are”, and makes people far more reluctant to admit to it.

The reality of course is that it’s essential for the stigma to be overcome, as it is a huge obstacle to addressing the issue. Getting people to think differently about loneliness and isolation is part of the mission of WipeOutLoneliness.org, the not-for-profit organization we formed to address loneliness and social isolation.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

At the individual level, the first step always starts with understanding. It’s very difficult for individuals to provide support for those suffering mental illness if they themselves don’t have an understanding of what that experience can be like. The good news is that it doesn’t take much to get a better understanding, even if you’ve never been touched by mental illness in your own life, either yourself or through someone close to you. Something as simple as reading stories about other people’s experiences can start you on the road to understanding and empathy.

At the community level, we’ve made great strides in the last decade or so but a lot more needs to be done. Social problems require social solutions, particularly in areas which have been hit by the decline in traditional community constructs to help communities respond to these issues — this is why I think we’re seeing a rise in new community-based organizations like Stitch.

At the government level, there needs to be greater recognition that none of these issues will be solved in isolation. We’ve found it surprisingly challenging to get government support for our initiatives around social isolation and loneliness, despite most leaders now recognizing it as a major issue. Social enterprises are stepping in to fill gaps not being met by government policy, but they still require support of government at all levels — local, regional, federal — in order to succeed.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

  1. Maintain active social connections.
    No surprises that this one is top of my list, given my experiences with Stitch. I’m fortunate that my role keeps me connected on a very personal level with a vast number of our community members, many of whom help sustain me through challenging times. But I’ve also learned to be conscious to resist the temptation to withdraw from social contact when times are difficult, and instead recognize that those are the moments when it’s more important than ever to feel connected.
  2. Let people in
    For some reason we all feel we’re expected to put on a brave face and not show when we’re vulnerable. I guess I was fortunate enough to learn early in life that letting people in when you’re having trouble makes an enormous difference. When people understand what you’re going through, they’ll go out of their way to help, and even just knowing you don’t have to spend the energy on pretending to be fine can take some of the burden away.
  3. Exercise … as long as it’s the right kind
    We often get told that exercise is good for our mental health. Personally, I’ve found that’s true for some kinds of exercise but not others. If I’m overthinking things, then going for a run or going to the gym doesn’t do a lot of good for my mental state, as it allows me to stew on my worries while I’m exercising. On the other hand, choosing an exercise that occupies my full attention, like playing team basketball, is fantastic. I’ll play a game of basketball and find I’ve thought of nothing but the game I’m playing for an hour or more. This is only personal preference, of course, but for me any fast-moving team sport is likely to take my headspace into a zone where I can’t think about anything else as I’m having to focus on the game so much … for me it’s the perfect form of meditation.
  4. Cook
    Another meditative activity I love is cooking. Like exercise, it gives me something to focus my energies on (and look forward to, as I love to eat too!) without creating mental space for worries or anxieties.
  5. Read fiction
    Research tells us that the brain behaves very differently when we read fiction compared to non-fiction. We engage the imaginative brain, we form new neural pathways, we sleep better … the list of benefits is quite extraordinary. But even if we didn’t have the research, we know intuitively that reading fiction is different. If you’re feeling stressed, scrolling through your news feed doesn’t do a lot to take you away from your worries … it turns out you can worry about your own anxieties AND the problems of the world at the same time. If you’re engrossed in a fictional story, however, it can transport you away from the present moment and immerse yourself in the life of someone else.
  6. Ask what story I’m telling myself
    So much of our behaviour and how we feel is dictated by the stories we tell ourselves. Did that person look at me strangely because they don’t like me? Or are they just having a bad day? The stories we tell ourselves have a profound impact on how we’re feeling. When I start to feel myself feeling low, I ask myself: what story am I telling myself, right now? How much of how I’m feeling comes from the story I’m subconsciously telling myself? Acknowledging that how we’re feeling is influenced by our internal narrative is often the first step to taking control of it.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

Strangely enough I find I get most of my inspiration from reading fiction. I’m not really sure why that is, perhaps because a novel is one of the most powerful ways to truly feel what the world is like from someone else’s perspective. I recently finished reading A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman, for example, which is a charming little novel which helps create great empathy in the reader for someone who on the surface appears to be cantankerous and mean, but in reality is just experiencing deep isolation and loss. When written well, novels can offer a path to help understand the challenges that other people may be experiencing.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Life is short. Make it count.

How can our readers follow you online?

Readers can follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, Stitch on Twitter, and like our page on Facebook.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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