The setting up of the Commission on Social Connection by the World Health Organisation underlines a critical shift in recognising loneliness as a global health emergency. Co-chaired by US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy and African Union Youth Envoy Chido Mpemba, the Commission is set to address the pressing issue of social isolation and loneliness, a problem that transcends age, geography, and socioeconomic status.
Often perceived as an issue predominantly affecting the elderly in wealthier nations, loneliness is, in fact, a universal challenge. Its impact is felt across all demographics, with one in four older adults and up to 15% of adolescents experiencing loneliness. These figures, alarming in themselves, are likely conservative estimates due to underreporting.
The health risks associated with loneliness and social isolation are profound and diverse. Comparable to well-documented hazards like smoking, excessive drinking, and obesity, loneliness significantly increases the risk of a range of physical and mental health conditions. It elevates the likelihood of stroke, anxiety, dementia, depression, and suicide. Furthermore, social isolation has been linked to a 30% increased risk of cardiovascular disease. This highlights the urgent need for public health interventions.
Role of COVID in exacerbating loneliness
The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a spotlight on the issue of loneliness, revealing both our vulnerability and resilience. Despite only a slight increase in loneliness levels in the US and Europe during the pandemic, it has highlighted the pre-existing conditions of isolation in our societies. The pandemic underscored the fragility of our social networks and the need for robust public health strategies to combat loneliness.
While the establishment of the Commission is a significant step, it is crucial to delve deeper into the causes and effects of loneliness. Social disconnection can lead to a cascade of negative outcomes, including poor educational and economic performance. Young people, more susceptible to loneliness, face the added pressure of social media, which can exacerbate feelings of isolation.
Role of technology in loneliness
While technology has undoubtedly connected the world in unprecedented ways, it has also contributed to the rise of loneliness. The constant barrage of social media updates, often depicting idealised versions of others’ lives, can fuel feelings of inadequacy and isolation. Additionally, the anonymity of online interactions can lead to superficial connections that fail to satisfy our innate need for deep and meaningful relationships.
Loneliness is not just a personal health issue; it also has significant economic consequences. A study by the World Economic Forum found that loneliness costs the global economy an estimated $3.2 trillion annually due to lost productivity and increased healthcare costs. This is because loneliness can lead to decreased job satisfaction, absenteeism, and presenteeism (being physically present at work but mentally absent).
Tackling loneliness: A multidimensional strategy
Combatting loneliness requires a multifaceted approach. While increasing social interactions is part of the solution, the quality of these connections is paramount. Initiatives should focus on building meaningful relationships and addressing individual needs. For instance, joining social groups may benefit some, but not others who might be introverted or socially anxious.
The Commission’s agenda includes defining a global strategy on social connection and promoting collaborations for evidence-based solutions. This initiative is particularly timely given the social disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments and public health organisations are increasingly recognising loneliness as a significant health issue. For example, the UK appointed a minister of loneliness in 2018, followed by Japan in 2021. These steps reflect a growing awareness of the need to integrate loneliness into public health policy and practice.
Individuals and communities play a critical role in addressing loneliness. Simple acts of kindness, nurturing existing relationships, and engaging in enriching activities can alleviate feelings of isolation. Recognising loneliness as a natural human experience and not a stigma is vital for encouraging open discussions and seeking support.
Social prescribing, a growing movement in healthcare, recognises the power of social connections to improve health and well-being. This approach involves linking individuals with community resources, such as social groups, volunteer opportunities, and arts and culture programs. Social prescribing has been shown to be effective in reducing loneliness, improving mental health outcomes, and even reducing healthcare costs.
The WHO Commission on Social Connection marks a turning point in addressing the loneliness epidemic. This initiative calls for a coordinated effort encompassing policymakers, healthcare providers, communities, and individuals. By understanding the multifaceted nature of loneliness and implementing tailored, evidence-based solutions, we can build a less lonely, healthier, and more resilient society. The battle against loneliness is a collective endeavour with profound implications for our health, well-being, and societal progress.