‘I’m lonely‘. A ubiquitous phrase seen in everyday life that often masks the true significance and severity of the feeling of isolation that almost 20% of the adult population in the U.S suffer from. It is a universal issue, from university freshers all the way to the elderly population. The state of being lonely is often misunderstood or underestimated, such that the true seriousness and implications are downplayed or discounted altogether, with grim consequences. The ‘Loneliness Epidemic’, as described by former U.S. Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy, will undoubtedly only get worse the longer half the world’s population remains on lockdown and in isolation over the COVID-19 pandemic.
One in five people being lonely in the United States is a significant number; it is more than the number of people with diabetes, more even than the number of people who smoke. And this is just people who ADMIT to feel loneliness; the true total is likely far higher. It is this state of emotional depression that contributes to a shortened lifespan for those who suffer from it, in the same way that smoking and obesity lead to premature death. The consequences of loneliness go far beyond health issues as well; it leads to decreased productivity in the working environment, as well as negative academic performance in school children. The effects of loneliness are particularly pronounced in young people, who are more likely to develop behavioural disturbances and partake in substance abuse if isolated and lacking in social connectivity.
THREAD: As #COVID19 forces us to physically distance from one another and as our contact with other people drops, society is at risk for a *social recession*. A social recession is marked by an increase in #loneliness and isolation. (1/x)
— Vivek Murthy (@vivek_murthy) March 19, 2020
Social connection is essential for everyday life; it is a healing tool and often the foundation on which humans build, collaborate and communicate to support one another. Thus, isolated persons often lack this crucial support structure and suffer for it. Loneliness is not a new phenomenon; people around the world have suffered from the condition throughout history. However modern society, which can often be individualistic in nature, has certainly brought the underlying issues behind loneliness to wider public attention. People are now more mobile than ever before; people move for work and education, often leaving their ‘support network’ of people behind, and fail to build new relationships at their destination.
Advances in technology have also been a blessing and a curse in terms of social connection; people are able to communicate with ease at a much greater extent than ever before, but social media and smartphone usage also ‘dilute’ the quality of social interactions, such that people often opt for ‘lower quality’ online connectivity as opposed to more ‘wholesome’ offline, in-person relationships. It is analogous to people only ‘stoking the surface’ when they really should be aiming for the ‘roots’, and is perfectly exemplified by students eschewing a night-out but then experiencing FOMO (Feeling Of Missing Out) upon viewing their friends’ social media, which often exacerbates feelings of isolation and low self-esteem as people compare their own ‘average’ experiences to their peers’ ‘best’ experiences.
People who are lonely often refrain from admitting so out of fear of being perceived as advertising their ‘unpopularity’, and as such isolation can be seen as a ‘silent killer’. It can especially be an issue for men, as popular (and inaccurate) notions of masculinity promote independence and self-sufficiency; admitting to loneliness is often tantamount to admitting you are less of a ‘man’ than everyone else. The truth is that no man is an island; humans have evolved specifically to be interconnected creatures who can openly share their emotions and vulnerabilities with friends and loved ones; this is something that men can struggle with compared to women, which is often only alleviated when they meet their future partner.
Loneliness is also a stigma among new parents who, despite having to reject social connections in favour of looking after their children, often are afraid to admit their feelings of isolation for fear of being seen as ‘ungrateful’ when they should feel ‘lucky’ to have kids.
It is clear that loneliness is a problem for all people of every age group, and not just a stereotyped condition of the elderly once they retire and their support network of people begins to grow smaller and smaller. This state can only get worse as the elderly and other vulnerable people are forced into isolation to protect them from the coronavirus; we are effectively sending them into a ‘mental prison’. There is hope, however: by showing love and support to people in isolation, we can effectively halt the ‘loneliness epidemic’ by promoting feelings of self-worth and raising self-esteem. Check in with your friends and neighbours, even if through the digital medium. Just 10 minutes of your day could mean the world to someone else who is stuck at home. The NHS Volunteer Responders initiative has also set up a Check-In and Chat Scheme as part of the wider ‘Coronavirus Army’ for the UK. And if you are feeling lonely yourself, the best action is to seek out connections, be it through Student Life, the SUSU Online Community or your Personal Tutor.
You will be OK.