“Loneliness is more than just a bad feeling, it harms individual and societal health”

Last year, the US Surgeon General released a report entitled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation“. In it, he makes the startling conclusion that the mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and worse than obesity or inactivity. Coupled with the statistic that 1 in two every Americans report experiencing loneliness, he is urging societal change to combat the harmful consequence of this condition. As Surgeon General Advisories are reserved for urgent public health challenges that require immediate action and awareness, this report is all the more significant. Loneliness is defined as a subjective distressing experience that results from perceived isolation and inadequate meaningful connections, a discrepancy between preferred and actual experience. Social connection is a fundamental human need essential for survival. He quotes a 2022 study of adults in the US that only 39% felt very connected to other people. The lack of social connection often results in a significant increase in health spending annually due to increased hospital and doctor visits. Some key factors in understanding loneliness and social connection.

  1. It is a continuum. Everyone falls somewhere on the continuum.
  2. It is dynamic. Our social connection is not static.
  3. It is subjective. Lack of perceived personal and social connection does not always result loneliness.

Key trends

  • Social networks are getting smaller.
  • The number of close friendships is declining.
  • Household size is declining.
  • Shared community space is declining.
  • Use of and reliance on technology is increasing.

While the pandemic exacerbated already declining human interaction, he suggests we now have an opportunity and an urgent need to rebuild social fabric. He recommends a national strategy to combat loneliness and advance social connection.

  1. Strengthen social infrastructure in local communities through design of the build environment as well as establishing local community connection programs
  2. Enact Pro-Connection Policies to ensure that policy increases social connection
  3. Mobilize the health sector to assess patients and promote interventions
  4. Reform digital environments to establish safety standards
  5. Deepen our knowledge by promoting research and funding and public awareness
  6. Build a culture of connection by expanding conversations on social connection and cultivating respect and kindness to each other.

One approach is Social Prescribing which is a “holistic, person-centred and community-based approach to health and wellbeing that bridges the gap between clinical and non-clinical supports and services.” While it has been widely implemented in the UK and USA, it is less developed in Australia. However, the Australian National Preventative Health Strategy recommends that social prescribing be embedded in the health system. As a start, some local areas have been identified for early experiments and research. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners are actively supporting this approach. Social Prescribing is being called an exciting frontier in the health sector. It is strategic solution to bridge widening health outcomes across the healthcare spectrum. It needs greater public awareness, policy and funding.  ASPIRE (Australian Social Prescribing Institute for Research and Education) is an important resource. You may have seen the ABC programs documenting the benefits of creating connection between teenagers and older people, called Old People’s Home for Teenagers. This is an example of social prescribing using intergenerational approach. You can find out more about Australia’s work on intergenerational programs on the Australian Intergenerational Institute site. These are potentially areas of growing opportunity for creative therapists. Stay tuned.

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