A new advisory from the Surgeon General shows that Americans increasingly have one thing in common – we’re lonely. In fact, our lack of social connection is creating an “epidemic of loneliness” that threatens our health at an individual, community, and even national level.
At Orange County Health Psychologists, a network of licensed mental health professionals, our mission is to help individuals, families, and our community live happier lives. To do that, however, we need to recognize the challenges before us – which is why this new report is so important.
Understanding the Loneliness Epidemic
The 82-page report, which was published by the Department of Health and Human Services, provides a comprehensive look at the state of social connection in the US.
Notably, the report found that objective measures of social exposure and social participation across several types of relationships have steadily declined since 2003.
Unsurprisingly, those declines were exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, which isolated the population further.
The advisory also explores the negative impact that social disconnection has on both individual and community health and prescribes a six-part “National Strategy to Advance Social Connection” to mitigate our increasing levels of isolation.
Health Impacts of the Loneliness Epidemic
A letter from the Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, opens the report. Dr. Murthy states that “the harmful consequences of a society that lacks social connection can be felt in our schools, workplaces, and civic organizations, where performance, productivity, and engagement are diminished.”
Data in the report also places social disconnection into the broader context of personal health. Research cited in the report shows that the effects of isolation and loneliness can have a comparable, or even greater, impact on mortality than other risk factors like smoking, alcohol consumption, or high blood pressure.
Social connection is linked strongly to heart health and stroke outcomes, as well as mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. But loneliness can also have an impact on less obvious concerns like high blood pressure, diabetes, cognitive function, and even recovery from infectious diseases.
A Framework For Connection
The Surgeon General’s report provides a national strategy for reestablishing social connections that are supported by six pillars.
The first is to strengthen social infrastructure in local communities by establishing and investing in local institutions and community connection programs that bring people together.
The second pillar is enacting pro-connection public policies that recognize the importance of connection for every sector of society and seek to minimize harm from disconnection.
The third pillar is mobilizing the health sector by educating healthcare providers on the effects of social connection on mental and physical health. By implementing best practices and community solutions, the health sector can play a vital role in combating social disconnection.
Fourth, we must reform digital environments to reduce harm. That may include changes ranging from age restrictions for social media to the development of “pro-connection technology to promote healthy social connection.”
The fifth pillar represents deepening our knowledge of the impact that social connections have on individual and community health. Though the evidence cited in the report is clear, a better understanding of loneliness and standardized metrics will make it easier to address these challenges effectively.
Sixth, and finally, is cultivating a culture of connection. This is where “the informal practices of everyday life” come into play. By developing our capacities for kindness, service, respect, and mutual commitment, we can embody the shapes that we want to see in our own lives and communities.
How OC Health Psychologists Fight the Loneliness Epidemic
The OC Health Psychologists team has been aware of loneliness and isolation increasing across America for some time. In fact, as we noted last year, the problem extends beyond our borders. Both the United Kingdom and Japan have created a “Minister of Loneliness” position since 2018 to combat this crisis.
In our experience, focusing on increasing social connection as a goal of therapy is the most effective form of resistance to this epidemic. Choosing to work with a licensed mental health professional can unlock incredible personal growth and optimize our overall health.
“It’s gratifying to see the Surgeon General and government agencies shine a light on the crisis of loneliness we’re facing, if only because the subject deserves more attention than it’s received so far. We have prioritized social connection in our practices and our personal lives because of these challenges, and we have seen the positive benefits of developing and deepening relationships firsthand.”
– Kristin Kleppe, PsyD, Orange County Health Psychologists President
If you feel isolated or are struggling to form meaningful social connections, the licensed and experienced providers at Orange County Health Psychologists can help. With the right support, you can develop resilience and the social tools you need for a healthier and more connected life.