In February 2021, Japan announced the appointment of its first-ever Minister of Loneliness following an alarming increase over the past few years in the number of deaths from suicide. This may be a rarely heard appointment of a ministerial position in any country, yet Japan is not the only one to take such measures to tackle loneliness and social isolation. In 2018, UK’s then-Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the country’s first Minister of Loneliness after a 2017 Jo Cox Commision report found that more than nine million people in the country often or always feel lonely. The U.S. is no exception to this crisis: nearly two-thirds of Americans report feeling lonely.
These statistics and the actions taken by Japan and the UK point to a troubling trend–what some experts have called the “Loneliness Epidemic.” And that was even before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, drastically changing our day-to-day lives and significantly increasing social isolation. Loneliness has increased by 20–30 percent and emotional distress has tripled as a result of the pandemic.
Feelings of loneliness and isolation are often dismissed, but can have a major impact on one’s mental health and are often associated with increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide. And it’s not just your mental health that loneliness plays a factor in. Loneliness has been linked to cardiovascular disease and estimated to shorten a person’s life by 15 years, equivalent in impact to being obese or smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
What can be done to combat loneliness and isolation?
As people around the world increasingly recognize the public health impact of loneliness, it’s clear that we’ll need a comprehensive approach to tackling this growing epidemic. And while there have been a variety of proposals–from addressing the issue at a ministerial level as the UK and Japan have done, to calls for national health guidelines, to action at the individual level –there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all type of intervention.”
One major approach that cuts across different types of interventions to address loneliness and isolation is creating, building, and nurturing social connectivity. In other words, the idea that being physically or emotionally connected to others influences and improves health and well-being. As such, experts have recommended both personal and public approaches to increase connections.
Karen Dobkins, a professor of psychology at University of California San Diego says that social connectivity starts from within oneself. In an online HearMe listeners training program, she noted that being attentive to one’s body and honestly addressing its needs enables people to first connect with themselves before helping them tackle barriers to connect with others. Amy Novotney, citing Christopher Masi, MD, and his team at the University of Chicago, also echoes a similar approach to addressing loneliness. “Interventions that focus inward and address the negative thoughts underlying loneliness in the first place seem to help combat loneliness more than those designed to improve social skills, enhance social support or increase opportunities for social interaction.”
Mental Health America, among others, also highlights taking a more personal approach, such as stress-alleviating activities like journaling, meditation, and exercise, as a way to combat loneliness.
Wider public interventions that address loneliness across age groups and demographics should also be considered. Public campaigns on loneliness are one such way groups are raising awareness of the public health impact of this crisis. Holt-Lunstad and F. Robles note that large-scale campaigns, such as The Campaign to End Loneliness in the UK, Oprah Winfrey’s, “Just Say Hello” campaign, and the American Association of Retired Persons Foundation’s campaign to combat social isolation, have the potential to tackle the problem by helping change behavior, recognize unhealthy social norms, destigmatize loneliness and social isolation, and increase conversations around the topic.
In addition to this, there should be special attention paid to interventions focused on addressing the impact of loneliness and social isolation on various affected groups such as minority and LGBTQ communites and children and young people. Support groups and creating safe spaces for vulnerable communities could help foster connection, while schools could teach kids how to deal with feelings of isolation as much as universities can be a good place to engage young people to tackle the problem.
While technology is often blamed as the cause of increasing isolation, using technology as a force for good to connect people is another way to combat loneliness and social isolation. At HearMe App, we’ve made tackling loneliness our mission, working to connect people with different interests and from different community groups so they can talk freely and anonymously to trained listeners about what’s on their mind. It’s just one part of the solution, but we believe that finding avenues to feel heard and honestly express one’s emotions can improve mental health, decrease negative self-thoughts, and lead to a happier, more fulfilling life.
“In this time of loneliness, many people feel that they are struggling alone. And simply showing up — being present — is a lost art,” United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has stated. We couldn’t agree more.
Loneliness will continue to affect people’s lives, and with the pandemic still ongoing, some level of isolation will continue to be a normal part of our lives. All these interventions and more will be required to address the issue in a comprehensive manner. Humans are social in their nature and finding ways to build and strengthen their social connectivity is central to addressing the Loneliness Epidemic.