In a groundbreaking move, the United States Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, has issued a Surgeon General Advisory declaring loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection a public health crisis in the United States. This alarming announcement highlights the pervasive nature of loneliness in American society and its detrimental impact on our mental, physical, and societal well-being.
The Magnitude of the Issue
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem, approximately half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. This pervasive disconnection has far-reaching consequences, increasing the risk of premature death to levels comparable to smoking daily. Loneliness also raises the likelihood of developing mental health challenges, including depression and anxiety.
The Call to Action
In response to this pressing issue, Dr. Murthy has laid out a comprehensive framework for a national strategy to advance social connection. This strategy outlines specific recommendations for individuals, governments, workplaces, health systems, and community organizations to foster greater connection and combat loneliness.
This Surgeon General’s Advisory lays out a framework for the United States to establish a National Strategy to Advance Social Connection based on six foundational pillars:
Surgeon General’s Advisory, HHS.Gov, May 2023
- Strengthen Social Infrastructure: Connections are not just influenced by individual interactions, but by the physical elements of a community (parks, libraries, playgrounds) and the programs and policies in place. To strengthen social infrastructure, communities must design environments that promote connection, establish and scale community connection programs, and invest in institutions that bring people together.
- Enact Pro-Connection Public Policies: National, state, local, and tribal governments play a role in establishing policies like accessible public transportation or paid family leave that can support and enable more connection among a community or a family.
- Mobilize the Health Sector: Because loneliness and isolation are risk factors for several major health conditions (including heart disease, dementia, depression) as well as for premature death, health care providers are well-positioned to assess patients for risk of loneliness and intervene.
- Reform Digital Environments: We must critically evaluate our relationship with technology and ensure that how we interact digitally does not detract from meaningful and healing connection with others.
- Deepen Our Knowledge: A more robust research agenda, beyond the evidence outlined in the advisory, must be established to further our understanding of the causes and consequences of social disconnection, populations at risk, and the effectiveness of efforts to boost connection.
- Cultivate a Culture of Connection: The informal practices of everyday life (the norms and culture of how we engage one another) significantly influence the relationships we have in our lives. We cannot be successful in the other pillars without a culture of connection.
At an individual level, we can take proactive steps to strengthen our social connections. These include:
- Nurturing existing relationships: Prioritizing time with family and friends is crucial for maintaining meaningful connections.
- Expanding social circles: Joining clubs, volunteering, or pursuing hobbies can provide opportunities to meet new people and build new relationships.
- Seeking professional help: If loneliness is persistent or overwhelming, seeking guidance from a therapist or counselor can be highly beneficial.
Beyond individual actions, a collective effort is needed to address the societal factors contributing to loneliness. This includes:
- Government initiatives: Implementing policies that promote social connection, such as funding community centers and supporting social programs.
- Workplace initiatives: Fostering a supportive and inclusive work environment that encourages interactions and camaraderie among colleagues.
- Healthcare initiatives: Integrating social connection screenings into routine healthcare checkups and providing referrals to appropriate resources.
- Community initiatives: Organizing events and activities that bring people together, creating opportunities for interaction and connection.
The Path Forward
Addressing the loneliness epidemic requires a multi-pronged approach that engages individuals, communities, and institutions. By prioritizing social connection and implementing effective strategies, we can foster a more connected and healthier society.
Health (OASH), O. of the A. S. for. (2023, May 3). New Surgeon General Advisory Raises Alarm about the Devastating Impact of the Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation in the United States. HHS.gov. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/05/03/new-surgeon-general-advisory-raises-alarm-about-devastating-impact-epidemic-loneliness-isolation-united-states.html
Sforza, L. (2023) Surgeon general declares loneliness an epidemic, The Hill. Available at: https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/3983153-surgeon-general-declares-loneliness-an-epidemic/ (Accessed: 22 November 2023)