Recently Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness to be a health epidemic. The effects of loneliness and isolation are very real and devastating for many. But there is hope. By building human connections through social interactions, we can reverse the trend.
Here’s what we can do as professionals to help clients and colleagues combat the effects of loneliness.
Understanding the Health Effects of Loneliness
For the past several years, many of us have been focused on the health effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve explored the importance of protecting our physical bodies from viral infections and illness. We masked up, used hand sanitizer, and practiced “social distancing.”
But during the pandemic, and as we enter the post-pandemic era, another insidious health hazard has crept into the lives of many: loneliness. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, though, loneliness was ubiquitous in many communities. Many people already felt socially distant, and those feelings were exacerbated as the pandemic wore on.
People have long hungered for human connection and the positive effects of social bonds. We are social creatures. We want to see and be seen. We want to build that all-important rapport with others that helps us feel connected. This need for connection is woven into our very fabric as a survival instinct.
In studies of early human populations, anthropologists correlated increased lifespans when they noticed that humans showed evidence of healed broken bones. Why? Because when early humans were isolated and alone, a fractured bone could be deadly. When humans lived in societies, they cared for other members, allowing them to heal from injuries (physical and emotional) and recover. Social interactions improve our immune system and help us avoid the detrimental effects of isolation. Social support plays a critical role in human health throughout history.
We may not think of loneliness and isolation as conventional health hazards at first glance, but the concern has become so dire that Surgeon General Murthy issued an advisory on this health crisis. It’s an issue that our health care system must address, not only because of the physical health effects of loneliness but the profound mental health hazards. The mind-body connection and impact on mental health can’t be understated.
What are the risk factors and health effects of loneliness? Surgeon General Murthy advises that feelings of loneliness can impact several areas of wellness, including mental health, social health, and physical health. It can increase the risk of premature death at a similar level to smoking.
Studies have shown that the overall health effects of loneliness include a higher risk of many physical illnesses, including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, cognitive decline, and dementia, particularly in older adults, who may be more significantly impacted by isolation and a lack of social connection. It’s thought that loneliness and isolation may even increase the risk of premature death. In a country where our life expectancy has recently decreased, the effects of loneliness and isolation have serious implications on many already vulnerable populations, such as older adults.
Of course, many of us also think of the mental health effects of loneliness and isolation, which can be even more significant and dangerous. What are the mental health effects of loneliness? Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of depression and anxiety. In children and even young adults, Loneliness and a lack of social connection can continue to impact mental health into later adulthood and lead to lifelong mental health challenges. For older people and those with chronic illness, a lack of social connections can damage cognitive function, lower quality of life, and lead to premature death.
Because of the health risks associated with the loneliness epidemic, the Surgeon General has begun to build a National Strategy to Advance Social Connection. The Surgeon General is promoting this strategy amongst community leaders and those who work with the public—including community organizations, health organizations, schools, government municipalities, and others who work in service to their fellow human beings. These guidelines can help improve social relationships and help people avoid the impact of chronic loneliness.
The Antidote: The Importance of Human Connection
The antidote to the effects of loneliness is human connection. Just like people in early civilizations, we see that human connection and socialization protect members of any group or community. Community connections increase our safety and our health—when we watch out for one another, we thrive together.
Social connections are particularly important during times of crisis—such as natural disasters, civil unrest, and health crises (like the COVID-19 pandemic). Unfortunately, social distance and isolation were part of daily life as the protocol for fighting the spread of COVID-19, making many people even more vulnerable in more ways. Suddenly lonely people were even more alone, and many were left without their traditional support group. Our Team Wellness and Reflective Supervision trainings are designed to support the connection of your team. In delivery of services, the whole of our Healing-Focused Care model supports creating a culture of service that is founded on acceptance, connection, and belonging.
So, what are the Surgeon General’s recommendations for healing the loneliness epidemic? What can we do as community leaders and organizers? There are a number of factors that can impact serious loneliness. The recommendations for improving social interaction and addressing chronic loneliness include the following:
1. Support and Strengthen Social Infrastructure
In his report, Surgeon General Murthy underscores the importance of community gathering places and programs. Some examples of these community social infrastructures include parks, libraries, green spaces, and areas for community gatherings. Of course, family members and friends make a significant difference, but it’s essential to recognize that not everyone has or has regular access to their social network.
2. Increase Public Policy to Support Social Connections
Governments—state, local, and tribal can help by increasing their focus on public policies that foster and build community connections. These might be actions like increased access to public transportation and health services, particularly focused on older people and underserved populations.
3. Focus on Health and Wellbeing
Another call to action in the Surgeon General’s report is the need for a continued focus on health services that support wellness. Health care is a human right, and it’s crucial that all members of our communities have access to care and advocacy. The report encourages the healthcare sector to expand its reach as much as possible with awareness and accessibility for the early detection and treatment of loneliness and isolation health risks like heart disease, substance addiction, and depression.
4. Evaluation of Technology
It’s impossible to talk about loneliness and isolation without addressing the elephant in the room—the screens that can come between us. Even though social media and other digital services can increase our human connection in some ways, in other ways, they ring hollow and lack the same impact as face-to-face connections. Many reports reflect how technology can negatively impact our mental health, particularly teenagers. We need to explore these risks and clearly understand the effect technology can have on all of us.
5. Continued Study of the Effects of Loneliness
As the report points out, this study is really the tip of the iceberg. There is much more that we can discover about the impact of loneliness and social disconnection. Certain communities that are severely impacted by isolation may not even be acknowledged or discovered within the current scope of exploration. It’s essential that we continue to stay cognizant of the impacts of loneliness and isolation in the long term.
6. Increase Opportunities to Connect
The report calls for fostering a “culture of connection.” It’s vital that community leaders, providers, and all members reach out to one another and work together to find opportunities to connect. We can’t underestimate the importance of loose social connections—the people we see in the elevator, on the street, or interact with at the store. When we build kind, respectful connections with all humans we encounter, we’re boosting the health of our community as a whole.
Prioritizing Wellness in the Workplace
So what can we do in our workplaces and interactions with clients to increase well beingness and human connection? Surgeon General Murthy has also released advisories on Health Worker Wellbeing and Workplace Wellbeing. As many headlines highlight, right now, we’re in a time where burnout is at an all-time high. Many folks are feeling the stress and strain of their jobs. Those who work in human services are particularly vulnerable to experiencing compassion fatigue, which can be particularly lonely and isolating.
As Share wellness expert and trainer Noor Jawad has shared, there are several ways we can help to promote our wellness and sense of balance, which can help us fortify our well-being during the challenges of loneliness and isolation (as well as support our clients and colleagues). She suggests the following areas of focus to help increase well beingness, particularly when working with others in our community, where we may experience vicarious traumatization in our daily life. All of the following aspects are embedded in our Team Wellness and Reflective Supervision trainings.
- Physical Health: Noor reminds us that our physical body is the foundation for mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness as well. It’s crucial that we listen to our bodies and honor our biological needs.
- Mental Health: Noor underscores the importance of keeping our brains “plastic,” in other words, focusing on increasing new experiences, engaging with others, learning, and practicing mental skills that help us maintain our mental health.
- Emotional Health: In our well-beingness journey, emotional intelligence is crucial. We must honor our emotions and allow ourselves to feel the full range of feelings (even those that may be uncomfortable). Our emotional health is critical for social well-being too. As Noor points out, it’s vital that we expand our circle of connectedness to include all humans, not just those who align with us intellectually, socially, or environmentally. Emotional health is crucial for moving from a place of fear to a place of love.
- Spiritual Wellbeing: Noor also discusses the vital role that our spiritual well-being plays in our overall sense of well-beingness. This means acknowledging that we’re all spiritual beings that share the unity of humanity.
When we focus on our own well-beingness along with the well-being of our community, we can start to combat the effects of loneliness and isolation. Well-being is about understanding our connection with ourselves as well as our relationships with others.
In the end, one of the best things we as individuals can do to address the problem of loneliness is to reach out to our fellow humans with respect, acceptance, and love. When we recognize that many people are struggling with the effects of loneliness and isolation, we can also realize that we each hold power to counteract those effects by seeking ways to connect, hold space for one another, and to share. Social connections lower a person’s risk of many of the effects of loneliness, so it’s well worth the effort to build these crucial connections.
Please reach out for more information on increasing well-being and continuing to build healthy communities and relationships. We offer opportunities for human service professionals to grow and learn supportive practices to foster healthy workspaces for themselves and for those they serve. These services are critical now, more than ever. Here’s where you might start: Team Wellness and Reflective Supervision.