The deadly epidemic of loneliness, even during the holidays, can be cured | Opinion

December 10, 2023

A longtime state legislator says the pervasiveness of loneliness in our society is profound for a variety of vulnerable populations, not just seniors. This time of year, during Thanksgiving and the December holidays, increased feelings of loneliness and a deep sense of social isolation are heightened for far too many.

When my mother died in 2020 at the age of 87, her death certificate listed the cause of death as “heart failure,” but it should have also included, “accelerated by pandemic-induced social isolation and loneliness.”

Even before the pandemic, my mother, like so many other seniors, struggled with loneliness after she retired from a career of teaching high school English. The pervasiveness of loneliness in our society is profound, an epidemic that has only gotten worse in our post-COVID world for a variety of vulnerable populations, not just seniors. This time of year, during Thanksgiving and the December holidays, increased feelings of loneliness and a deep sense of social isolation are heightened for far too many.

According to a recent NJ Department of Human Services (DHS) report, about 44% of all New Jerseyans over the age of 65 are lonely — and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Some 84% of New Jerseyans with a mental illness are lonely, followed by 71% who have a disability, and 38% of our active military and veterans. Other studies have found that around 40% of college students suffer from loneliness.

In total, the report estimates that more than 2.3 million New Jersey residents are lonely or socially isolated and notes that the actual levels of loneliness in the state are likely much higher than that. No matter how you look at it, the results are clear and alarming — millions of residents are lonely and the rates in our most vulnerable populations are devastating.

The DHS report on loneliness, released earlier this year, was a response to legislation I had written in 2019 and signed into law in January 2020, just two months before the start of the pandemic. Loneliness and social isolation have been known for quite some time to be deeply detrimental to mental health and physical well-being.

Social isolation is associated with depression, high blood pressure, and increased risk of heart disease and stroke. These feelings can lead to a greater risk of self-harm, major depression, anxiety and other social phobias.

A variety of studies have shown that social isolation not only harms physical health, it is a deadly disease that contributes to increased mortality rates. One study found that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

But unlike other deadly diseases, combatting loneliness doesn’t need a laboratory of our top scientists to search for a cure. It only needs us to understand the depth of the problem and put forth the leadership and resources to combat it.

Loneliness and social isolation, while related, are not the same thing. Loneliness describes a lack of meaningful social connections and relating to others, while social isolation refers to the size of one’s social network and the frequency of one’s contact with others. Loneliness can easily occur even if you have a large social network, yet feel that the contact with others is insufficient or superficial to meet your emotional needs.

Other countries are way ahead of us when it comes to addressing loneliness. In the U.K., a national study in 2017 resulted in the government creating a Minister of Loneliness to lead the effort. Last month, the World Health Organization announced a new three-year Commission on Social Connection, co-chaired by the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, to address loneliness as a pressing health threat, promote social connection as a priority and accelerate the scaling up of solutions in countries of all incomes.

Here in New Jersey, we have taken some important steps to combat loneliness, but there is much more to do. In 2020, our state ombudsman started a “Social Isolation Project” to ensure our long-term care facilities are doing what they can to “maximize residents’ rights.”

Additionally, the Legislature passed a law requiring long-term care facilities to implement policies to prevent social isolation as a requirement for receiving a license. DHS has begun focusing on this in a variety of ways, including increasing funding for training new caregivers and retaining existing ones so that more people can remain in their communities.

These are important steps, but as a 2021 Council of State Governments (CSG) report pointed out, we need to do even more. The CSG report correctly calls for increased social-emotional learning curricula in our schools to combat adolescent isolation, address the loneliness of those involved in geographically isolated professions, and create public policies that will increase the number of mental health providers.

Moving forward, it is clear that while government can not solve the problem alone, working together with the private and non-profit sectors, we can aggressively combat the loneliness epidemic.

We must provide focused and sustained leadership while we increase funding for successful existing programs ready to scale up to larger populations. We must nurture and support new and innovative programs that target populations with alarmingly high levels of loneliness.

None of this is difficult if we choose to make it a priority. It is time for our efforts to reduce loneliness to match what we do to reduce cancer rates or incidences of heart disease.