An ‘epidemic of loneliness’ is growing. The vaccine is social connections | Opinion

Just days before the COVID public emergency officially ended last week, the surgeon general issued a warning about a public health crisis that isn’t going away – loneliness.

Where COVID affects how bodies breathe, this threat involves how lives breathe. When social connections wither and one’s world shrinks, mental and physical health suffer, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said in an advisory.

“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health,” he said.

In an echo of the famous 1964 surgeon general’s report linking smoking and cancer, Murthy said the physical effects of loneliness can be equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. His advisory said it can contribute to heart disease, stroke and dementia and raises the risk of premature death by more than 60 percent.

Concern about fraying social connections is not new. It was the subject of Robert Putnam’s 2000 book: “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”

But the years of isolation brought on by the COVID pandemic narrowed social circles and led to what appears to be a permanent shift toward more people working entirely from home or under a home/office hybrid schedule.

Bowling alone has become working alone before a computer screen.

Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, didn’t need the surgeon general to tell her there is a growing national plague of loneliness. But she is glad the nation’s top public health official has put a spotlight on mental health, an area that is chronically overlooked and underfunded.

“I am hoping that this will be a call to arms,” she told me.

Meltzer-Brody said that while the loss of social connections has long been a concern, “the pandemic has accelerated it in a way that now it has become a crisis.”

The loss of social engagement and a sense of belonging, she said, is fueling a rise of anxiety among children and adolescents and fueling increases across age groups in suicides, opioid overdoses and other deaths of despair.

“Human beings are social creatures and there’s a very long and well-documented history that we need social connection, we need intimacy, we need touch, we need communities,” she said. “We’re pack animals and the impact of the pandemic on disrupting how we connect with each other is profound.”

But describing the need is much simpler than meeting it. COVID increased isolation and the technology that helped people weather the pandemic also stands in the way of restoring personal connections. With the rise of artificial intelligence, people will increasingly be able to converse with machines rather than humans.

Technology can also be part of the solution. Psychiatrists now can use video conferencing to help emergency room doctors treating people who are having a mental health crisis. It’s also useful for delivering general mental health therapy, particularly in rural areas where few therapists are available.

Finding the right balance of in-person social connection and virtual help should be a priority for mental health providers, Meltzer-Brody said. “I hope the surgeon general’s report will call attention to the need for all of us to work on it together.”

Reducing loneliness means building connections, she said, and that begins with individuals. “The surgeon general’s report can be a call to action – what can I do personally,” she said. That answer could be participating in community or church groups, joining the local YMCA or volunteering.

“I think it’s about people really engaging with each other and looking at their lives and asking: How much of my life is now isolated and in the virtual realm,” she said.

But Meltzer-Brody said the responsibility for addressing loneliness also extends to all levels of government, where there should be more mental health resources and an emphasis on creating gathering places and opportunities for recreation and social interaction.

COVID required separation. This epidemic will be ended by engagement.

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-404-7583 or nbarnett@