America’s loneliness epidemic

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America is currently in the middle of an epidemic. This outbreak isn’t spread through rogue germs or improper sanitization — it stems from a lack of social connection.

The growing problem of loneliness prompted a Surgeon General Advisory last May. The advisory laid out a plan for the National Strategy to Advance Social Connection, a road map seeking to remedy the issue of social isolation in America.

A study from a BYU faculty member found that weak social connections can cause the same mortality impact as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. Social connection can influence both physical and mental health. (Andrew Osborn)

“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said.

The report found social connection can influence physical health through three pathways: biology, psychology and behaviors.

A trailblazing study conducted by BYU neuroscience and psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad found people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with fewer social connections.

Using data from the same study, Murthy said the mortality impact of being socially disconnected is comparable to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

In addition to physical impacts, the Surgeon General Advisory explained the mental health challenges loneliness and isolation can cause.

“The risk of developing depression among people who report feeling lonely often is more than double that of people who rarely or never feel lonely,” the report said.

Phil Rash, assistant director at the BYU Counseling and Psychological Services office, said loneliness presents itself when a person’s need for social connection isn’t met by their actual social connections.

Certain people can be alone most of the time and not report feelings of loneliness, Rash said. Others can be in a crowd of people but still feel isolated. This discrepancy arises due to varying degrees of social connection needs.

BYU Counseling and Psychological Services offers assistance to those suffering from mental health struggles. The BYU CAPS office is located in room 1500 in the Wilkinson center. (Universe Archives)

“If I’m around a lot of people all the time and I’m still feeling lonely, that could be a clue that I need, maybe, some more profound, deeper connections than what I’m getting,” he said.

The problem of loneliness in America has been steadily increasing for years, Rash said. A variety of factors have contributed to its rise.

“We are a society who is very performance driven, and so a lot of people don’t feel like they can take the time away from work,” he said. “When they go home, they are still working and checking emails and things like that, so they’re disconnected because of the demands of work.”

Rash said social media is often blamed for higher rates of social isolation and people’s virtual friends and followers can lead to artificial connections that don’t transfer over into the real world.

For someone who feels isolated, Rash starts by recommending they find hobbies they enjoy and ways to participate in those activities with other people.

“I would encourage people that I work with to try and have 15-20 minutes of real conversation with someone every day,” he said.

When someone is trying to become less isolated and increase their social connections, it’s important to manage expectations and avoid becoming discouraged with slow progress, Rash said.

“We’re not going to all of a sudden have all these very close friends,” he said. “It’s something that happens little by little.”

Loneliness can be a significant trigger for certain individuals. If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, there are resources available. Consider using the following free and confidential hotline:

Suicide and Crisis Hotline: 988

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