By Melissa Farrell MS, LMHC
There’s another pandemic impacting our lives. This one, too, is affecting people from all walks of life who are now seeking mental health care for anxiety and depression. Like the pandemic that none of us anticipated, this one may also be taking its sufferers by surprise. It is loneliness.
A study conducted in 2021 by Harvard University found that 36% of American adults reported serious loneliness, and 61% of young adults reported significant loneliness. With depression in adults increasing by 30%, it is not shocking to learn that U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has declared that loneliness is a national health crisis.
The past few years have been filled with fear, anger, and uncertainty for most Americans. Now, as we seem to be getting back to normal, it would seem that we should all be feeling better. And yet, loneliness and depression are increasing. Why?
It turns out that loneliness may be a leading factor in the flood of people who are struggling with mental health symptoms. True social connection, which is essential for our mental health and well-being, cannot be accomplished by scrolling through social media. The bonds required for meaningful connection must be accomplished through face-to-face interaction with others, feeling like you are part of a tribe, and finding value in shared activities.
In our stressful, busy, and often chaotic lives, it’s all too easy to lose sight of simple things that can feed our soul. Journalist Johann Hari makes reference to this in his 2019 TED Talk “This could be why you’re depressed or anxious.” Hari injects humor into what he has to say, but shares his own serious journey with depression. He says we have lost our way as a species and are currently the loneliest society in human history. Hari also reminds us that throughout human evolution, our true superpower has been our ability to band together in our tribe as we hunted, found shelter, and survived with the support of the group. He also says we should not be relying solely on medications for treating depression, and instead focus more on imbalance in how we are living.
U.S. Surgeon General Murthy’s insights are consistent with Hari’s, and says that we should try to spend 15 minutes a day talking or writing to someone we love. We live in a busy and often distracting world. Connecting with someone consistently can help remind us of the value people bring to our lives. Spending time with others without the TV on or scrolling through social media helps, too. Not only will it help you feel better, but also it will lift the other person’s spirits. Helping others is a powerful connector. Murthy recommends checking in on a neighbor or giving advice to someone who is struggling. He says, “In this time of loneliness, people may feel that they are struggling alone. Simply showing up – being present – is a lost art.”
Melissa Farrell MS, LMHC, is Vice President of Clinical Administrative Operations at Spectrum Health and Human Services.