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Michael Bader: Loneliness is a public health issue

Michael Bader

Albert Schweitzer once said, “We are so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.”

Loneliness is so prevalent that it has become a public health issue. Lest you think this is metaphoric, the statistics are chilling.

In a study funded by the National Science Foundation and reported in the American Sociological Review, researchers from Duke University and the University of Arizona conducted 1,500 face-to-face interviews with a random sample of American adults and found that one quarter of the respondents admitted that they had no one with whom they could talk about their personal troubles or successes. If you excluded family members, this number increased to over 50 percent.

Studies of elderly people only underline this pattern more dramatically.

Further, research about the health effects of social isolation concludes that those older adults without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely. The increased mortality risk of loneliness is comparable to that from smoking. Loneliness, in fact, is about twice as dangerous as obesity.

The hopelessness that so often accompanies loneliness has recently been associated with the increased mortality from suicide and drug and alcohol abuse among a surprising demographic — white middle and working class adults between the ages of 45 and 54.

As Johann Hari documents in his book, Chasing the Scream, it is emotional trauma and social disconnectedness — rather than the compellingly addictive power or “hook” of certain substances themselves — that offer the best explanations of the causes of addiction today. The opposite of addiction, according to Hari, is not sobriety but connection.

Psychotherapists like myself have long known that abandonment and neglect inflict every bit as much trauma on a developing child as more overt and violent forms of abuse. The absence of a secure attachment leads to disabling feelings of insecurity and self-hatred. Connection is a vital nutrient fuelling human development.

So we’re facing an epidemic of loneliness, generated not only by factors like shrinking family size but by the competitive individualism of our culture that promotes an “every man (or woman) for him or herself” ethic and that has undermined traditional social and community organizations like labor unions, fraternal clubs and organizations, and other non-profit venues where people traditionally could gather and work together. Social media and the Internet have the paradoxical effects of enabling greater connectedness but doing so in ways that are fundamentally private in nature.

Various political movements indirectly speak to the problem of isolation. When a group creates an “us versus them” mentality in its followers, its appeal comes in part from the way it fulfills the need to belong, to be part of something bigger than the self, to be part of a community of “insiders.” Sometimes, unfortunately, that community is based on demonizing some “other,” some “outsider” — for example, immigrants, Muslims, etc. But such scapegoating isn’t a necessary part of social and political life. We can and should address in healthier ways the frustrated longings of people to be more connected and accepted.

Look what happens when communities come together to help each other following a disaster. Progressive social change movements (e.g. the Civil Rights Movement) have always sought to create experiences of belonging and mutuality without having to demean an Other.

We need to view loneliness as a threat to public health and the health of our social fabric and seek to cure it in every healthy way possible.

Michael Bader is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at michaelbaderdmh@gmail.com.

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