WHO commission to address ‘health threat’ of loneliness, isolation

Zoë Petersen, Deseret News
Zoë Petersen, Deseret News
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The World Health Organization has established a Commission on Social Connection, making understanding and finding solutions to loneliness and social isolation a global priority.

Calling loneliness a “pressing health threat,” the global public health giant said the commission will review the latest science and come up with ways to boost social connections. The new commission will be co-chaired by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and African Union Youth Envoy Chido Mpemba.

“Social isolation and loneliness are widespread, with some countries reporting that up to one in three older people feel lonely,” WHO reports. “A large body of research shows that social isolation and loneliness have a serious impact on older people’s physical and mental health, quality of life, and their longevity. The effect of social isolation and loneliness on mortality is comparable to that of other well-established risk factors such as smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.”

As Deseret Magazine reported, Murthy has been so concerned about loneliness among teenagers in America that he issued an urgent health warning on the topic in December 2021.

“The pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced,” Murthy wrote.

According to the article, “Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, cases of depression and anxiety doubled among young people. Emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts were 51% higher for adolescent girls and 4% higher for adolescent boys compared to early 2019.”

Research has found that relationships, more than genetics, determine how long someone lives, as Deseret News has reported. Strong social connections are linked to better physical and mental health, coping skills, sleep quality and other aspects of health.

Loneliness and isolation are particularly hard on mental health, often resulting in anxiety or depression. And those, in turn, further impact both mental and physical health. The issue also spans generations. Marriage and family therapist Laurie Singer, of Camarillo, California, told the Deseret News that in her private practice she sees people ages 5 to 80 who suffer from anxiety, depression or both and loneliness is often a cause.


The WHO announcement said the commission will run at least three years. It has 11 “leading policymakers, thought leaders and advocates,” while more may be added. The commission’s job is to analyze social connection’s role in improving health at all ages and then come up with some solutions to build social connection at a large scale.

“High rates of social isolation and loneliness around the world have serious consequences for health and well-being. People without enough strong social connections are at higher risk of stroke, anxiety, dementia, depression, suicide and more,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “This WHO Commission will help establish social connection as a global health priority and share the most promising interventions.”

According to WHO, social disconnection also can lead to worse education outcomes. WHO says lonely high school students are more prone than others to dropping out. On the employment front, those who feel unsupported and disconnected don’t perform as well and have lower job satisfaction.

Per CNN, “Loneliness has drawn a lot of attention recently in the public health sector. Last week, New York state appointed sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer as its first loneliness ambassador. In May, Murthy laid out a framework to tackle loneliness and ‘mend the fabric of our nation.’ And it’s not just a U.S. phenomenon; in 2018, the UK appointed its first minister for loneliness.”

The Commission on Social Connection will meet for the first time Dec. 6-8. It expects to release a flagship report midway into the three-year initiative.