On May 2, 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued an advisory that declared loneliness a public health crisis. That's right, loneliness is now considered a serious health problem that can have a negative impact on your physical and mental well-being.
Loneliness is the feeling of being alone or isolated from others. It's not the same as being alone, which can be a good thing and sometimes even preferred (we see you introverts and fellow neurodivergent humans). Loneliness is when you feel like you don't have meaningful connections with other people.
Within his advisory, Dr. Murthy called on individuals, communities, and organizations to take steps to address loneliness. He suggested that people reach out to friends and family, get involved in their communities, and volunteer. And, he also reached out to social media health creators to help spread this important message.
To do this, on May 1st (the day before America received the public announcement), Dr. Murthy's team held a private briefing with select mental health and medical creators and influencers to share the impacts loneliness can have on physical and mental health and to open up a forum for creators to ask questions directly to Dr. Murthy.
I was able to ask a question to Dr. Murthy about his advisory on loneliness and how he feels about issuing this important message to the American public. I'll share that with you below (it's a big deal), but first let's dive more into the advisory, loneliness, and the effects it has on us.
The U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory on Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation
(We read the 82 page document so you don't have to 😉).
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is the feeling of being alone or isolated from others. As Dr. Murthy describes it, loneliness could be considered to be equivalent to social disconnection. It is a subjective experience, and what one person finds lonely, another person may not. Since 2014 when Dr. Murthy first became U.S. Surgeon General, he's heard stories from people describing loneliness in different ways. From "I have to shoulder all of life's burdens by myself" to "if I disappear tomorrow, no one will even notice", we've been feeling lonely for a long time.
Up to 50% of American adults report feelings of loneliness. Here are some common causes, signs, and symptoms of loneliness:
Feeling sad, anxious, or depressed
Feeling isolated or cut off from others
Feeling like you don't belong
Feeling like you're not good enough
Having difficulty trusting others
Having difficulty forming relationships
Between 2003 and 2020 (before the pandemic), national trends showed that we were not only spending more time alone, but we were also decreasing how much time we were spending with others in-person. And after 2020, it's clear the pandemic did not help the situation. Increasing social connection is vital for the well-being of our future and the time to make a change is now.
What is social connection?
Social connection is not just about the number of relationships you have in your life. It's about how much you actually feel connected to those people. There are three vital components to social connection and we highly recommend you get out a pen and paper and explore each of them on your own.
Structure: The number of relationships you have, the type of relationships these are, and how frequently you interact with them.
Function: How much you can actually rely on these relationships to support your needs; and
Quality: The level of satisfaction, helpfulness, and/or positivity you find in these relationships
There's a reason you might have heard people say: "I prefer a few close, best friends rather than a bunch of loose acquaintances". The quality of the relationships matter.
What leads to loneliness and social disconnection?
It may seem like you're the reason you're lonely. Perhaps you've been told if you just changed or "got out more", you'd have more friends. There are likely things you could do to support yourself AND there are many factors that can contribute to loneliness not just personal choices. Some of these include:
Individual Factors of Loneliness
Age: Older adults are more likely to experience loneliness than younger adults.
Social isolation: People who are socially isolated are more likely to experience loneliness. Social isolation can be caused by a number of factors, including living alone, having few friends or family, or moving to a new place.
Mental health problems: People with mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, are more likely to experience loneliness.
Physical health problems: People with physical health problems, such as chronic pain, cancer, and dementia, are more likely to experience loneliness.
Life events: Life events, such as divorce, the death of a loved one, or job loss, can increase the risk of loneliness.
Relationship Factors of Loneliness
Structure, function, and quality (see above)
Emotional capacities: Level of empathy and the characteristics of others around you can limit one's ability to form deep relationships.
Household size: Living alone and/or living with individuals who you don't have good relationships with can reduce opportunities for connection.
Community and Social Factors of Loneliness
Housing and support program difficulties
General social program availability
Public transportation availability
Discrimination, bias, and violence in and against communities
The effects of loneliness and social disconnection are not good...
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Dr. Courtney is a licensed clinical social worker and doctor of clinical psychology who specializes in substance use disorders, personality disorders, depression, anxiety, and the trauma that precedes and results from these conditions.