How to Address Loneliness — the Silent Epidemic

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Can we just talk about the elephant in the room?

Like depression was in the nineties, loneliness is today’s personal burden that many of us carry but few openly discuss. In healthcare and policy circles low rumblings are emerging about how big of an issue this is becoming. In 2018 the health insurer Cigna published a report that summarized a study of over 20,000 Americans reflecting on individual’s dealings with loneliness. The results were sobering.

Through the many data points, the headline emerged that about one in every two adults living in the United States suffers from some kind of loneliness. Cigna now has a simple 10-point questionnaire anyone can take to determine his or her level of loneliness. It uses an abbreviated version of the UCLA Loneliness Index which is a commonly used measure of loneliness within the scientific community.

Loneliness is a Worldwide Problem

While the Cigna study focused on residents of the United States, this is not something that is only within the confines of American culture. There are numerous reports about the growing epidemic (that is what they are calling it) affecting Europe, the UK, Australia, Japan, and even India.

As the data and science indicate, feelings of loneliness can precipitate poor health both physical and mental. The findings suggest loneliness and social isolation can negatively impact one's health and lifespan to the equation of smoking 15 cigarettes a day! With such startling statistics, how is it that not everyone is waking up to the gravity of this ominous public health crisis?

Well, a few are. The UK, recognizing the link between individual health and societal prosperity, decided to put formal government resources against it. In 2018 Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Tracey Crouch as Ministry of Loneliness to find workable solutions and connection resources for the up to nine million people of Britain — about 14% of the population — who report often or always feeling lonely. Now other progressive countries (not the United States, however) are creating an open debate about how they are going to address this underground crisis.

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But it may be a monumental task indeed. Worldwide mental health professionals and policymakers are scrambling to definitively identify the causes so they can propose effective solutions. But how can an overarching bureaucracy implement policy or programs that depend on individual behavior, intimacy, and vulnerability? This is a problem that impacts us all as collective members of society but the pain of the matter and the start of the solution resides with the individual.

Loneliness Impacts All Generations

Without realizing it, statistically, every other person you encounter may be wrestling with feelings of loneliness. Either for themselves or someone close to them. It’s silent suffering. It would be erroneous to assume that this issue impacts the elderly disproportionately. Again referring back to the Cigna study, results indicate that the oldest generations surveyed (aged 72+) are least likely to be lonely.

Consistently 92% of respondents from this generation reported feeling in tune with others, feeling close to other people, and feeling like there are people they can turn to. However, the percentages of agreement with these statements declined with each successively younger cohort. Meaning the youngest surveyed (i.e. Generation Z: Ages 18-22) reported the highest instances of loneliness.

Some suggest that these results should not be a surprise when considering how these respective generations have lived their lives. It is mostly true that with age comes hardened resolve from muscling through life’s challenges including periodic loneliness. But the oldest among us have had a longer lifetime of cultivating relationships formed the old fashion way — primarily in person or through direct contact.

Conversely, younger people have grown up with the omnipresence of technology and with it the expectations that relationships are principally formed and managed through this medium. We as a society need to wake up to the potential damage of this relatively new and unexamined social norm. That relationships formed and nurtured remotely or via technology have the universal benefit of convenience but the perilous downside of potentially lacking meaningful substance.

Loneliness is a Personal Struggle

Aside from examining the age and location demographics of this issue, it’s important to remember that that burden of this problem is very personal. Regardless of one's age bracket or location, it is the circumstances of our complicated lives that bring upon feelings of loneliness. A death of a loved one, moving to a new town, starting a new job, or becoming a new parent are just a few examples of when this issue can clobber someone unexpectedly.

Likely each of us will have an episode like this at one point in our lives. While temporary feelings of loneliness are just a part of our human experience, extended episodes that are not properly addressed can accelerate a downward spiral leading to clinical depression and other health risks.

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For some, it’s not a specific event that serves as the catalyst for loneliness’ onset. Instead, it’s ongoing conditions of their lives that feel never-ending. Like a teenager suffering incessant bullying, a new immigrant adapting to a new culture, a 24/7 caretaker, or an isolated entrepreneur. Loneliness can also be insidiously present even under the veneer of normal living. A person living within a marriage or a single parent can be burdened with the anguish of loneliness.

It’s Time to Openly Discuss Loneliness

With an issue so painfully pervasive it needs to be brought out from the shadows and discussed more openly. Like depression, it is a condition that tends to stay hidden. No one wishes to discuss feeling lonely because there is a real fear of embarrassment for exposing this truth.

A sufferer could fear that by exposing their true feelings, they could make their isolation all the more worse assuming they’d be subjected to further ostracization. Aside from this, it’s quite possible the topic is not even discussed because those feeling the worst pain of it have few in their lives to even initiate the dialogue.

Finding Practical Solutions to Ending Loneliness

Some pioneers are sounding the alarm and working diligently to bring this issue to the fore. Like former U.S. surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy who believes that loneliness and emotional wellbeing are the biggest health issues of our time. He advocates for employers of every kind to be central in the effort to find solutions. “Our social connections are in fact largely influenced by the institutions and settings where we spend the majority of our time. That includes the workplace.” Murthy said in an interview with The Washington Post.

With such a complicated issue, it will take time and commitment to find workable solutions. Groups as broad as policymakers, private industry, mental health professionals, and faith-based organizations should have the incentive to work collaboratively towards solutions. What they bring forth will most likely require changes to the broader culture which will take time. But until more is known or a magic bullet appears, it will be put upon us as individuals to find our own personal solutions to our own personal loneliness.

The first step is to take some action. It’s always the hardest part. But nothing changes without some action.

The Real Suffering of Chronic Loneliness

Each person’s approach will be different depending on their circumstances. For some who suffer from chronic and persistent loneliness, it may feel insurmountable to just get out of the house. Their loneliness is all-consuming and debilitating and simply can’t be immediately remedied. Telling a person who suffers from chronic loneliness to just Cheer up! and Get out there! is like telling an obese person to just eat better and lose weight. It’s patronizing, insulting and misplaced.

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It’s important for chronic loneliness to be properly addressed as it can spur a downward spiral that leads to paralyzing depression and poor physical health (if that hasn’t happened already). For those that are in such conditions, it’s vital to receive professional help. Effective treatment under the direction of a supportive professional can include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), psychodynamic therapies, and improving solitary skills. Only a medical professional can create the right kind of solution for such a personal medical issue.

Action Plans and Ideas for Combating Temporary Loneliness

For those that deal with a less intense case of loneliness, often called transient loneliness, there are effective actions one can take to address it. Actions that can help avoid the isolation from becoming more chronic and persistent.

As advocated by Loneliness expert Dr. Jon Cacioppo author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection our journey out of loneliness starts in part by recognizing our individual needs for social connection and making efforts to extend ourselves accordingly. Dr. Cacioppo suggests that we all have different social set points of acceptable socialization and needs for connection.

It’s part of our inherent DNA and works much like a metabolism. Like a sliding scale, it means that our individual needs for socialization are all different but equally valid. To some like Henry David Thoreau years in solitude enriches the soul. To others, a night left alone without any socialization is unsettling.

So the answer lies in finding the level of social engagement and community that is right for each one of us. So where to begin? Find community that fits your needs and your interests. For one person it may be a monthly coffee date with one good friend. For another, it may be a busy week of multiple engagements.

The key to finding success as suggested by Dr. Cacioppo is to:

First, Take the initial action. Make an introduction. Go to the class. This is always the hardest part.

Second, Be consistent in your attendance. This continuity helps establish a feeling of belonging.

Three, Have an open and optimistic attitude. Set high expectations that you will find what you need. Your attitude will dictate your outcomes.

When finding your outlet, be creative and be open to anything. Get comfortable with saying “Yes!”. Sometimes you never know where you’ll find your new tribe.

Some ideas for finding community:

  • Start or join a club based on your interests. A supper club, a book club, a knitting circle.

  • Organize or join a regular game night. Texas Hold’em, chess, Monopoly, Scrabble.

  • Start or join a Mastermind group. Find inspiration and accountability with like-minded people.

  • Invest in a new skill - Learn Improv; Join Toastmasters; Learn to paint, play golf, or salsa dance.

  • Volunteer regularly for a cause you care about.

  • Attend a weekly faith-based service or gathering and get involved in their activities.

  • Join an activity-based group like a basketball league, hiking or walking group, or road racing group.

  • Bond over your pets. Seek out other pet owners to get to know and plan meetups.

  • Participate regularly at a Meetup group that pertains to your expertise or interest.

  • Get a part-time job at a place you would enjoy working.

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When wading in, if you need help striking up a conversation use these 10 unconventional conversation starters. If you feel nervous about putting yourself out there, recognize it is completely understandable. It’s okay. Take some comfort in knowing that statistically at least half of the people you meet are feeling the exact same way.

Loneliness is a silent and pervasive problem. Serious enough to kill you. It’s the biggest unspoken mental health issue in our world today. For how widespread it is, action needs to be taken to address this invisible suffering. But until a broad workable solution is discovered we each must do our own part. For our own sakes and for the sakes of our neighbors, families, and friends. Let’s start by openly discussing it. Every single person should know and believe they are not alone.

We’re all in this together.

Take Action!

If you are suffering from chronic loneliness, reach out to professional resources like these as a first step. If you are dealing with temporary or less pervasive loneliness, create an action plan for changing your situation. What one or two items from the bullet list above can you pursue within the next month?

Do you have any ‘overcoming loneliness’ success stories? What did you do? Please share in the comments below.