The US Surgeon General’s report on the public health epidemic of loneliness can be reduced to our society’s lack of three things: family, faith and friends. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has been raising the alarm about loneliness because it can lead to depression and other forms of mental illness, as well as severe health conditions including heart disease and dementia.
As a psychotherapist and mental health expert, I believe we need to focus on addressing the underlying causes of loneliness if we want to solve this public health epidemic. Over recent years, families have drifted apart, Americans have strayed from faith in a higher power, and virtual friendships and social media have subsumed real life friendships. It is no surprise that disconnection and alienation are the results.
Family support is critical to our mental health. As Jim Dalrymple has written, the Surgeon General’s report unfortunately omits any mention of family as part of the solution to the loneliness epidemic. Spouses, parents, siblings, and children offer valuable support and often unconditional love.
Yet, the trend of individuals moving away from their families to work and/or live in other parts of the country or world has resulted in the fracture of the family support system. More young people are raising their children away from parents and grandparents, requiring them to leave their infants and toddlers in the care of nannies or day care. The elderly are left in assisted living and nursing homes because their children have moved away and are unable to care for them.
Gone are the days when three or more generations lived together in the same house, all taking care of each other. We have outsourced the care of our parents and children, denying them the chance to enrich each other’s lives.
Religion used to be the bedrock of society. Communities revolved around a place of worship, ingraining a moral compass and a higher sense of purpose into Americans. Over the years, Americans have rejected faith, leaving emptiness in its place. The loss of faith has robbed society and its citizens of a sanctuary in the storm of life. When faith dies, who defines morality? What are people living for? What is left to hold communities together? It’s no surprise that loneliness and aimlessness are on the rise.
The rise of the internet and social media has led to the downfall of real, meaningful friendships. In some ways, our friends have never been closer. Never before have we had such instant access to where our friends ate dinner last night or where they went on vacation last month. With the click of a button, we can see where our friends have been and what they’ve done, things we’d only used to be able to know from talking to them.
But maybe talking was what actually kept us close. How many of these people are really our friends versus just people we follow online? How superficial does a friendship need to be before it is no longer a friendship, and we still feel alone?
The pandemic has both helped and hurt us with regards to loneliness. Children, particularly young children, were happier and felt more connected because their parents were home. And parents expressed increased satisfaction and connection because they were spending more time with family.
But as time at home with family increased, time with our faith communities and friends decreased. For those who lived and worked alone, and many who still do work from home alone, loneliness has continued to increase. Working remotely may have given us more flexibility, but it degraded our relationships with co-workers, many of whom were our closest friends.
For years, houses of worship were closed in many states. Families were denied access to their sick and dying loved ones in hospitals due to restrictions. Fear kept families and friends apart, leaving many feeling isolated, alienated and depressed. The pandemic also caused a migration of people away from their communities and their families. Many found themselves losing friends and loved ones who moved to states with better tax laws or mask laws or job opportunities.
In addition, adolescents struggled because they were kept out of school and isolated from friends, harming their social-emotional development and increasing their time online.
Loneliness is merely the symptom of society’s degradation of family structures, faith, and meaningful friendships. As technology has promised to bring us closer together, we have strayed further apart. We have moved away from our siblings and parents, thinking that they are only a short flight away.
We have left our faith behind, thinking it a relic of the past. We devote less time maintaining real relationships with friends, thinking that there must be nothing new to catch up on since their lives are on full display online. I am optimistic that we can turn this around, but it will take a concerted effort.
Solving the public health epidemic of loneliness moving forward may require us to look to the past to regain the familial relationships, faith, and friendships that we have lost.