By Gideon C. Elliott
As a society, we are on the brink of an epidemic. The number of people in the U.S. who admit to being lonely is at 40% – double the reported numbers from the 1980s. There is a growing body of literature on loneliness and mental health, but loneliness is a misleading word. We can unpack this term by breaking it into two pieces: Emotional isolation and social isolation. Social isolation is a concrete, measurable concept. How many friends do you have? How regularly do you interact with them? Whereas emotional isolation is a subjective experience, and usually what we mean when we describe the actual sensation of loneliness. Emotional isolation can happen even in a room filled with people; it is the feeling of a lack of meaningful relationships or connections.
Making the distinction between emotional and social isolation is important in understanding the research on why higher rates of loneliness matter. “Feeling lonely rather than being alone is associated with an increased risk of clinical dementia in later life and can be considered a major risk factor,” one study reports. So the number of friends and personal relationships we have may not be as important as the way that we feel about these relationships. Of course, both forms of isolation often go hand-in-hand.
Loneliness may be as bad for us as smoking; research suggests they are equal risk factors in early death and obesity. It may be no surprise that loneliness is associated with negative mental health, but it is showing a link with physical health as well. This includes increased risk for heart disease, impacted immune systems and sleep patterns, dementia, and pre-mature death. But what do you do when emotional or social isolation is also a symptom of a mental health condition?
I have a degree in psychology and have been working in the mental health field in one capacity or another for six years. I am familiar with both the potential risks and causes of loneliness, yet just this summer I found myself stuck in a feedback loop of social and emotional isolation. I’d fallen into a period of depression and while I have people I love and care about who are readily accessible to me, the idea of socializing sounded so exhausting. I just wanted to lay in my bed undisturbed for hours. And I did, for a while. But I noticed that my depression seemed to be worsening, and that the primary feeling driving it was a deep, longing ache of loneliness. I was lonely, but I didn’t actually want to see anyone.
Once I realized that I was socially isolating myself, I made plans to go out with a friend group that same night. It was hard and tiring, but my friends are lovely people and it was ultimately healing for me to spend time with them. I feel very privileged to have acquired the community that I have, which I know is not an easy task in itself. These friends are actually people I met after my first few months in Seattle – months in which I had met no one and had barely any interaction outside of my siblings and work. We met when I started volunteering with them at a local nonprofit that was deeply personal to all of us. I had decided to volunteer because I felt aimless and wanted to be attached to something. Even if I had not made the friends that I did, I think building a stronger connection with that community also helped me to feel less alone. I find support in just texting with friends when I’m not up to being around people. I belong to several closed groups on social media that allow people within those communities to make connections with each other and share resources. I am moving to a new state soon and I have already searched out and joined two of these groups in this new city. People also do use apps like Tinder or OkCupid to find both romantic and platonic relationships (I have! Results vary), and I plan to use Meetup.com to look for social groups relevant to my interests and make additional connections.
The truth is that I’ve always been a bit lonely. For most of my life I was concealing huge pieces of my identity – my mental health conditions, sexual orientation, and gender identity, to start with. I was afraid, angry that I was afraid, and I held people at a distance. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve made the conscious decision to be vulnerable with these things. I talk about my mental health in casual conversations and I’ve done everything short of tattoo the word “queer” on my forehead. I’ve found that being open about this has encouraged others to be open and vulnerable with me, and allowed us to get past uncomfortable small-talk to something more meaningful.
Loneliness can happen to anyone. It can happen to people with no support system and to people surrounded by friends. Feeling lonely is not a sign of failure. I don’t have the data on this, but I would guess that almost all of us have felt loneliness at some point or another. We are a social species, but that doesn’t mean that socializing is easy. This difficulty may be compounded by the rapid changes in the way we interact with others. The question of social media and other technology’s impact on our general mental health and feelings of isolation is still up for debate, but preliminary research does seem to suggest a correlation between time spent on Facebook and negative mental health. That being said, mindful use of social media can have a positive effect.
Isolation is often stigmatized in our society, like many aspects of mental health. It is urgent that going forward, we recognize how important loneliness is in our day to day lives. As a risk factor for physical and cognitive decline, we owe it the same space and gravity as smoking cessation. NAMI’s emphasis on peer-to-peer programs was cultivated for just this reason; no matter how lonely you feel today, you are not alone. For further ideas on how to combat loneliness, particularly in the Seattle area, peruse our website or check out a support group.