By Jamie Winters, LCSW
This spring, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory sounding the alarm about the epidemic of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in the country.
As the advisory noted, disconnection fundamentally affects mental, physical, and societal health.
In fact, loneliness and isolation increase the risk for individuals to develop mental health challenges, and feeling a lack of connection can increase the risk for premature death at levels that are comparable to smoking.
If you are struggling with feelings of loneliness and isolation, help is available. Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health provides a wide range of outpatient and inpatient services customized to meet the needs of adults of all ages as well as children who are suffering from depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders associated with loneliness and isolation.
Understanding Loneliness and Social Isolation
Human beings are social by nature. Connecting with others helps people lead happier, more productive, and more fulfilling lives.
Yet, according to the Surgeon General, even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately half of U.S. adults reported feeling measurable levels of loneliness. The pandemic exacerbated feelings of loneliness as so many people were cut off from family and friends and socially isolated.
The Surgeon General also noted a concern about the impact of some kinds of technology on relationships, social connection, and health.
Although related, loneliness and social isolation are different. In simplest terms, social isolation is characterized as having few social relationships and interactions while loneliness is a feeling that results from social isolation.
It is important to realize, however, that it is not just the number of social relationships that make a difference. The quality of those relationships and the role they play in helping meet your emotional needs are also critical.
Loneliness and social isolation can affect everyone. Currently, studies find the highest prevalence for loneliness and isolation among people with poor physical or mental health, disabilities, financial insecurity, those who live alone, single parents, as well as younger and older populations, according to the Surgeon General.
Health Risks as Deadly as Smoking 15 Cigarettes a Day
Loneliness and social isolation can have significant health consequences. According to the Surgeon General, the physical consequences of poor or insufficient social connection include:
- 29% increased risk of heart disease.
- 32% increased risk of stroke.
- 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults.
Additionally, lacking social connection increases risk of premature death by more than 60%.
Put another way, the mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
Conversely, evidence shows that increased social connection can help reduce the risk of serious health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, dementia, and depression.
Connect to Prevent Loneliness
Establishing social connections can help prevent loneliness. Here are some ideas to help you stay connected.
- Find an activity that you enjoy, pick up a hobby, join a club, or take a class to learn
something new. You will meet people with similar interests and have fun along the way.
- Schedule time each day to stay in touch with family, friends, and neighbors. Talk with
people you trust and share your feelings. Suggest activities that help nurture and
strengthen existing relationships.
- Volunteer. Volunteering can help foster a sense of purpose and cultivate new
relationships with others.
- Get outside in nature. Spending time outdoors is good for your mental and physical
health and increases the opportunity to meet other people — whether you are walking
along a trail, or simply sitting on a park bench.
- Make small talk. Say “hello” to the cashier at the grocery store, ask the barista at the coffee shop how their day is going, congratulate a colleague on a work success. These seemingly small interactions can make a big impact on combatting loneliness.
- Kids can combat loneliness by participating in clubs as well as in-person or online support groups.
- For younger adults, enrolling in a class or school that is of interest to them can help them get out and meet like-minded people.
When to Seek Help
If you are feeling lonely and isolated a lot of the time, talk with your doctor. They may
recommend seeking treatment from a mental health professional, especially if you have
symptoms of depression or anxiety, which include:
- Neglecting self-care activities, such as showering, grooming, and eating properly.
- Difficulty with sleep, like difficulty falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much.
- Fatigue or frequently feeling tired.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Changes in appetite.
- Significant changes in your weight (increase or decrease).
- Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed.
- Recurrent feelings of sadness or feeling down or depressed most of the day, nearly
For more information about Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health or to find a
therapist with Princeton House, call (888) 437-1610 or visit www.princetonhouse.org.
Jamie Winters, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and senior primary therapist at
Princeton House’s North Brunswick outpatient site.