Why loneliness is more dangerous than smoking, drugs?

There was a lesson to be learned from reflecting on aftermath of some policies, says Vivek Murthy

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Web Desk
A representational image of a person sitting alone, with a bicycle. — Pixabay/File
A representational image of a person sitting alone, with a bicycle. — Pixabay/File

Urging authorities to deal with this problem of loneliness in the same way as obesity and smoking, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said Tuesday that if not addressed, this condition was capable of taking a  toll on health far worse than smoking or doing drugs.

The warning was issued in an advisory that also suggested US citizens open up to other people and socialise more as people are running short of people to talk to, losing social connections.

“Right now, millions of people are telling us through their stories and statistics that their tank is running on empty when it comes to social connection,” he said.

The Surgeon General, who also wrote about his experience of loneliness, noted: "So bottom line is this has to be a public health priority that we consider on par with tobacco, with substance use disorders, with obesity and other issues that we know profoundly impacted people’s lives."

Murthy added that the pandemic has brought the disruption of social cohesion to the forefront, however, the advisory highlighted that it was also been ticking up since the 1970s for a myriad of reasons, including changes in social norms, built environments, and, of course, technology.

In a poll noted by the advisory from the 1970s, 45% of Americans said they could reliably trust other Americans.

The number came down to 30% by 2016. Americans spent 24 hours alone in a month between the years 2003 to 2020.

The time spent with friends in person decreased by 10 hours a month. Teenagers had digital interaction but the physical one was less.

The daily-limit interaction is also limited by home delivery services.

Murthy said: "It's a normal part of the human experience and loneliness, in many ways, is like hunger or thirst. It's a signal our body sends us when we’re lacking something we need for survival."

However, without pointing attention to the matter could contribute to increased help from hospitals for dementia and a vicious cycle of anxiety and depression.

Social disconnection was further increased due to closures and lockdowns forcing people to stay too long at home impacting the mental health of individuals.

Murthy also said policymakers had to "make tough decisions with little information" at that moment when sometimes thousands of people were dying from the virus every day.

He added: "Newer ideas like remote working are not always isolating either, often allowing people to spend more time with their children or elderly relatives".

Even so, he said there was a lesson to be learned from reflecting on the aftermath of some policies.

Murthy stated: "The one thing I think that's very relevant here, though, is I think it’s important to understand the kinds of consequences that can ensue from the decisions we make, and I think we often think about financial consequences. But I don't think we think often enough about the social consequences of our decisions."

He said social isolation can reach further, making people less civically engaged in their communities. "So when you look at it that way you start to realise that social connection is part of what fuels us, what allows us to show up in our lives and in our communities as whole people."

He wrote a column explaining his story after which has received countless letters from people sharing their own struggles.

"A lot of people that I encounter, all across the country and even around the world, are craving authenticity, they want to be able to be open with other people, they want other people to be open with them, but it can feel scary to do so."

"We have to recognise that part of that involves being able to show up as ourselves, being able to take a bit of a risk in sharing with other people, but also in listening to others and asking them how they’re doing and actually waiting, you know, for an answer."