In May, the Surgeon General Advisory Board proclaimed that loneliness and isolation have now become an epidemic in America. The United States Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, called the epidemic a “crisis” affecting all age groups (in particular, younger Americans) and demographics. He said it is impacting our health physically, mentally, emotionally, and psychologically.
(Click on the above image to view the full report.)
One may think these findings were due to the pandemic, but the research was conducted prior to COVID-19, with some studies commencing decades ago. The pandemic exacerbated the isolation that people were feeling, and now loneliness has become an epidemic within the United States. As a result, it’s jeopardizing our health.
One finding that stood out is that isolation and loneliness can increase the risk of premature death. The study compared it to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. The report, titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” shared startling statistics on how isolation impacts us physically, mentally, and psychologically, including a “29% increased risk of heart disease, 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults.”
Social Media: a Two-Edged Sword
Social media has become a staple to connect with others. However, even though people connect on various platforms, the studies show we are now less inclined to connect in person.
As humans, connection is essential to our existence. While social media is a quick and easy way to connect, nothing will replace in-person association. When we gather face to face, there is a connection that goes beyond that invisible wall of social media: the feeling of warmth in another’s embrace, the subtlety of that person’s facial expressions, and the energy of being in community together.
I witnessed this sense of disconnect one night when a friend and I went out for dinner. We were at a gorgeous rooftop restaurant with stunning views of the Pacific ocean. The sun was setting, and my friend and I turned towards the west, watching the sky change to various pink, orange, and purple hues as the sun sunk into the horizon.
We commented on how exquisite the evening was and shared our awe of nature’s beauty on full display.
When we turned back towards the dining area, we discovered other patrons at their tables staring down at their phones in silence. I thought about how two different experiences were happening simultaneously: one of connection, the other, disengagement.
My Own Experience with Loneliness
Like many others, I felt isolated and lonely during the pandemic. My family was thousands of miles away, and visiting my friends was limited to Zoom calls, which were better than nothing at all. But the loneliness and isolation lingered to the point where I knew I needed help. I went to my doctor, and she asked me to fill out a questionnaire. Once completed, she stepped out, and a few minutes later, she had my results. I was suffering from mild depression, and she recommended I see a psychologist and gave me referrals.
Some of the psychologists on my list were so overwhelmed that they stated in their outgoing voicemail messages they were no longer practicing. The burnout within the medical industry was unprecedented. I left messages with several offices never to hear back. The few occasions when I was lucky enough to connect with a live person, the receptionist informed me that the waitlist to see the psychologist was eight to ten months.
Hearing this news, my depression grew, but I knew I had to take action—anything to help alleviate or keep those feelings of despair at bay.
So, I walked. I walked and interacted with nature. I found solace in connecting with Mother Nature, the ultimate mother who holds us all. In that connection, I began to heal.
Eventually, I did see a psychologist and worked on those feelings. And once the pandemic had slowed and it was safe to meet others, I made it a point to gather with friends and spend quality time together.
After deep contemplation, I decided I wanted more connection and more fulfillment, especially with the people I loved. My phone remained in my purse or back pocket during my outings with my loved ones. After living through a pandemic, I realized how precious every moment is, and that the time we spend together can play a large role in the quality of our lives.
Discovering New Ways to Connect
Once I decided I wanted more connection, I had to figure out some ways to find it, and that required some courage and willingness to try new things.
About a year ago, I took a writing class and met some amazing fellow writers. I’ve always loved learning. For me, the class was another way to connect to people with similar interests while reading my writing in class and continuing to hone my craft. As a result, I also made some great friendships.
Another way I found greater connection was by meeting and going for a walk on the beach with a friend. What was first a once-a-month encounter quickly became a bi-weekly or weekly event.
My friend and I met in the morning, grabbed a cup of chai or coffee together at a local coffeehouse, and then made a beeline to the beach.
I cherished those walks because afterwards, I discovered I was more content and energized. The payoff of getting together and connecting was enormous and set the tone for the rest of my day.
Even if my friend and I were dealing with a challenging situation in our lives, we always felt better afterwards. Sharing helped both of us gain perspective, and as a result, we had more clarity on how to handle those challenging moments.
Volunteering at a local food bank also helped curb my loneliness while serving the community. A kind word or a smile can go a long way to uplift someone’s spirit. I realized that in serving my community, I was also generating a deeper relationship with people in my neighborhood.
Another example where I found connection was stepping out of my comfort zone and engaging with people I don’t personally know, such as a neighbor who lives a couple of blocks away or my Lyft driver. If individuals aren’t in the mood to talk (I’m an introvert, so I get it), I don’t push it. But if they do, I offer some casual conversation.
I notice that when I became interested in that person’s life, something beautiful happens. They light up, whether it is talking about their child, the music they’re creating for their debut album, or what they’re studying at the moment. More times than not, when I make an effort to engage with my check-out clerk, teller at the bank, neighbor, etc., I witness their smiles, beaming with joy, and in turn, I beam too.
At that moment, a connection is created, forming a bond. You never know how connecting with a person may have a positive impact on the rest of their day. I know that when a stranger says something kind to me when I’m having a hard day, it makes a world of difference in helping shift my mindset, and as a result, my day and my attitude change for the better. *
Recommendations from the Attorney General
What can we do about this epidemic of loneliness? In his report, the Attorney General had several recommendations. Here are the six pillars mentioned to help with the isolation and loneliness plaguing America.
- Strengthen social infrastructure in local communities
- Enact pro-connection public policies
- Mobilize the health sector
- Reform digital environments
- Deepen our knowledge
- Cultivate a culture of connection
There’s also a breakdown of the National Strategy to Advance Social Connection, which has guidelines and resources for individuals and organizations to take action on both the local and federal levels. You can find it here.
It’s important that organizations and governments implement and invest in inclusive practices that support connection and community so people feel safe in these areas, especially if they are struggling with isolation.
The loneliness epidemic has been with us for some time now. But if we can follow the guidelines set forth by the U.S. Surgeon General, as well as create new ways of genuinely connecting with each other, the benefits are numerous and can have a substantial impact on our lives.
All we have are moments in life. When we have the courage to reach out, ask for help, try something new, or discover new communities, we build the capacity to create deeper connections and more personable relationships. This is what happened with me. Sure, it was nerve-wracking and even scary stepping out of my comfort zone, but once I moved through that initial fear, I received deeper connection, which brought greater fulfillment within my life. And for me, that was priceless.
- I initially learned about the Surgeon General’s report here: NPR’s broadcast, America has a loneliness epidemic. Here are 6 steps to address it.
- This was my experience I shared, not medical advice. If you are in need of medical attention, please speak with your general practitioner or a medical professional. *
- If you are feeling depressed, anxious, or isolated, there is help. Call The Samaritans Helpline at: 1-877-870-4673. They provide 24/7 support for those in need.
- If you’re struggling and have thoughts of suicide, please call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 within the United States. They have mental health professionals available 24/7 who provide confidential support to people in suicidal crisis or mental health-related distress.