This week, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness and isolation an epidemic "that has harmed individual and societal health" in the United States, and proposed a national framework "to rebuild social connection and community in America."
In a New York Times op-ed published Sunday, Murthy outlined the toll loneliness, isolation, and lack of social connection takes on both individual and societal health.
"Loneliness is more than just a bad feeling," Murthy said. "When people are socially disconnected, their risk of anxiety and depression increases." In addition, the risk of heart disease (29%), dementia (50%), and stroke (32%) all increase.
Notably, the increased risk of premature death associated with social disconnection roughly equates to smoking 15 cigarettes a day — and it may be even greater than the risk associated with obesity.
Along with the individual consequences, loneliness and isolation impact whole communities. According to Murthy, social disconnection is associated with decreased productivity in the workplace, poor academic performance, and lower civic engagement.
"When we are less invested in one another, we are more susceptible to polarization and less able to pull together to face the challenges that we cannot solve alone — from climate change and gun violence to economic inequality and future pandemics," Murthy said. "As it has built for decades, the epidemic of loneliness and isolation has fueled other problems that are killing us and threaten to rip our country apart."
While roughly 50% of Americans are experiencing "measurable levels of loneliness" at any given time, it remains largely invisible, Murthy noted.
"We need to acknowledge the loneliness and isolation that millions are experiencing and the grave consequences for our mental health, physical health and collective well-being," he added.
Considering the significant costs associated with loneliness, Murthy says "rebuilding social connection must be a top public health priority for our nation." According to Murthy, this "will require reorienting ourselves, our communities, and our institutions to prioritize human connection and healthy relationships. The good news is we know how to do this."
On Tuesday, Murthy published a report called "Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation." In the report, Murthy outlined a national framework "to rebuild social connection and community in America" based on six pillars:
1. Strengthen social infrastructure in local communities
To strengthen social connection, local communities should create an environment that fosters social connection, establish and grow connection programs, and invest in local organizations that bring the community together.
2. Implement public policies that promote connection
The United States can also implement a "Connection-in-All-Policies" approach, take steps to minimize the harm associated with disconnection, and place cross-departmental leadership at all levels of government.
3. Tap into the health sector
This involves training healthcare providers, assessing and supporting patients, and enhancing public health surveillance and interventions.
4. Modify digital environments
To modify digital environments, stakeholders should require data transparency, create and implement safety standards, and further the development of pro-connection platforms.
5. Strengthen your knowledge
Murthy also suggests developing and coordinating a national research agenda, accelerating research funding, and boosting public awareness.
6. Create a culture of connection
According to Murthy, we should strive to foster values of kindness, respect, service, and commitment to each other, ensure that leaders are modeling connection values, and drive the social connection conversation in schools, workplaces, and communities.
"This work will take all of us: schools, workplaces, community organizations, government, health workers, public health professionals, individuals, families and more working together," Murthy said. "And it will be worth it because our need for human connection is like our need for food and water: essential for our survival." (Sforza, The Hill, 5/2; Murthy, New York Times, 4/30; Egan, ABC News, 5/2; Sforza, The Hill, 4/30; Seitz, Associated Press, 5/2; Summers et al., NPR, 5/2; Seitz, AP/STAT, 5/2)
Writing for the New York Times, Catherine Pearson explains what is driving the "loneliness crisis" in the United States and offers six expert suggestions to help adults make — and keep — friends.
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