The Loneliness Epidemic: A Hidden Crisis
As an increasing number of people across the world come to terms with living under a Coronavirus quarantine, fears of isolation and loneliness are growing exponentially (much like the virus itself). Yet, for many isolation and loneliness are a constant reality regardless of whether they’re under a state-sanctioned lockdown. Indeed, while many people are taking to social media to complain of being forced to stay at home and keep their distance from their friends and family, for many, this way of living is scarily similar to their normal lives; with a Japanese study finding that over half-a-million under 40’s in the country hadn’t left their house or interacted with someone for over six months. (While, a UK study found 23% of the general population always/often felt lonely — a figure that rose to 30% among younger people).
The loneliness epidemic, like many mental health issues, is inextricably linked to physical health, with psychology and neuroscience professor ‘Julianne Holt’ telling Vox that the long term health effects of chronic social isolation is comparable to the impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Some of this is, inevitably, linked to lifestyle choices as people who are lonely are more likely to engage in dangerous behaviours like drug use and excessive alcohol consumption, and are also at an increased risk of committing suicide. Yet, lifestyle choices are unlikely to carry complete blame for the long-term health impacts of loneliness, with a relatively recent study suggesting that loneliness and isolation lead to cellular changes that cause inflammation and therefore contribute towards an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers (among other things).
Loneliness, however, does not effect each demographic equally; with the very oldest and very youngest adults being disproportionately likely to report feeling socially isolated. Much has been made of the loneliness problem among older members of society, and for good reason too; older Americans face loneliness at a much greater rate than their middle-aged counterparts, while at the same time needing the help of others perhaps more than any other demographic. In fact, this problem is so bad among the elderly, that an older man told a journalist that for many people his age, “loneliness may be a greater fear than death.”
Yet, younger people face a similarly widespread loneliness problem, but it gets significantly less attention (though there are signs that this disparity is slowly changing). The relative lack of coverage given to young people’s struggle with this issue is somewhat surprising considering that while the reasons for loneliness among the elderly are somewhat self-explanatory (though, of course, also very serious), the prevalence of loneliness among young people would seem quite surprising to a lot of people.
The long term health effects of chronic social isolation is comparable to the impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day
With social media, the Millennial/Gen-Z age group were supposed to be the most well-connected generation in history, yet — as the Coronavirus lockdown has shown — the virtual world makes a poor substitute for the real one. What’s worse is that the social media age has created the illusion of being well-connected, and has thus begun to slowly replace face-to-face connection (despite being much less effective in warding off feelings of isolation). Indeed, it might be the illusion of connectivity that has led to the widespread nature of loneliness being under-estimated by societies. Indeed, while much of the world has rightly ceased normal operations due to a virus with a 1% fatality rate, governments across the world have failed to take decisive action on the loneliness epidemic, despite lonely individuals being at a 26% increased risk of mortality compared to everyone else.
Nevertheless, while social media can serve as an easy scapegoat for a myriad of societal problems, growing reports of social isolation cannot be attributed entirely to social media. Instead, there are a myriad of reasons for this problem, including many which started before the advent of social media, such as, falling marriage rates and the decline of organised religion.
The loneliness epidemic, like many mental health issues, is inextricably linked to physical health
The latter reason stands out in terms of it’s responsibility for younger generations loneliness issues, as Millennials and members of Gen-Z are the least religious generation. It’s understandable why— in the eyes of many younger people, the refusal of many religious leaders to liberalise their stances on issues like homosexuality and sex before marriage has made the entire institution of organised religion seem out-of-date. Yet, it’s still true that without the sense of community, purpose and connection offered through regular religious services, loneliness becomes a significantly larger threat (especially when coupled with a general decline in the strength of local communities). Indeed, that this decline in traditional religion has coincided with the growth of spirituality and astrology among younger people, shows that Millennials are looking for the same sense of fulfilment that people have traditionally found through organised religion.
Yet, falling religiosity probably isn’t the biggest contributor to the loneliness epidemic and neither are falling marriage rates, in all likelihood. In fact, looking for one specific trend or event and blaming the entirety of the problem on it is probably unhelpful. In all reality, this problem is caused by much wider, societal issues. What is clear, though, is that the mental health crisis, of which loneliness is a key element, should be taken much more seriously than it currently is — especially in light of statistics that show that suicide rates among 10–14 years tripled within 10 years and that the prevalence of major depressive disorders has increased by nearly 50% among Millennials recently. While there are signs that serious action is beginning to be taken on these issues — such as a general fall in stigma around mental health, and the UK’s creation of a Minister for Loneliness — it’s clear that there’s a lot more work to be done.