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U.S Surgeon General declares epidemic of loneliness and isolation
Even before the pandemic, Murthy said the country was experiencing an “epidemic of loneliness,” driven by the accelerated pace of life and the spread of technology into all of our social interactions. With this acceleration, he said, efficiency and convenience have “edged out” the time-consuming messiness of real relationships. The result is a public health crisis on the scale of the opioid epidemic or obesity, Dr. Murthy said.
In a 2018 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in five Americans said they always or often felt lonely or socially isolated. A study by Cigna that same year found only around half of Americans have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.
This disconnection fundamentally affects our mental, physical, and societal health. In fact, loneliness and isolation increase the risk for individuals to develop mental health challenges in their lives, and lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking daily.
The physical health consequences of poor or insufficient connection include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Additionally, lacking social connection increases risk of premature death by more than 60%.
“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health,” said Murthy. “Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight – one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives.”
The key to combatting loneliness, according to the report, is social connection. Social connection is beneficial for individual health and improves community resilience. Communities where residents are more connected with one another fare better on several measures of population health, community safety, community resilience when natural disasters strike, prosperity, and civic engagement.
Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation provides a framework for a national strategy to advance social connection with recommendations that individuals, governments, workplaces, health systems, and community organizations can take to increase social connection.
Referenced among those community organizations are religious groups, faith organizations, and faith-based organizations. The lack of specificity in referencing churches is appropriate in what is, after all, a government publication, but it may also suggest the diminished social standing or decline of the church as a critical institution for building social connection and community resilience.
The surgeon general’s call to restructure our lives around people, rather than work, is a challenge that is as welcome as it is enormous. Tackling it will require reversing cultural shifts decades in the making. In his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” Robert Putnam charted a steady erosion of social ties dating back to the 1950s.
The consequences of not meeting this challenge go beyond individual health and community well-being. Hannah Arendt called widespread loneliness an underlying condition of totalitarianism. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Arendt argues, isolation and solitude flank loneliness as two related but distinct conditions. Isolation, she writes, “may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result.” Isolation is the inability to act together with others, which, according to Arendt, is the source of a person’s political power.
Connected people live longer, happier, healthier lives. Connected societies do too.
Curtis Ramsey-Lucas is editor of The Christian Citizen and editor of #InThisTogether: Ministry in Times of Crisis, available from Judson Press. For more from The Christian Citizen, sign up for our free weekly newsletter. The Christian Citizen will be taking a closer look at the surgeon general’s report and the role of churches in addressing social isolation and loneliness in their communities.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.