Author: Stephanie Collier, MD, MPH, Contributor
You are worried about your mother. Before the pandemic, you would visit her every week with your young children. They loved playing in her garden and eating homemade cookies together. You would take your mother to medical appointments and on small excursions. However, due to her chronic lung disease, you made the difficult decision in March not to continue in-person family visits. You call her daily, but she sounds increasingly sad and worried. What can you do?
Loneliness is a subjective mental state of feeling disconnected from others. It is different from social isolation — you can be lonely even when surrounded by people you care about. Loneliness can be triggered by memories of losing someone, by feeling misunderstood by others, through having emotionally unsatisfying relationships, or by having less access to relationships due to changing life circumstances. According to studies, loneliness is one of the greatest health concerns people face: it is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes daily, it appears to be worse for your health than obesity, and it may increase your risk of death by 29%.
It does not seem surprising that reports of both loneliness and suicide have increased dramatically in recent years. According to a recent survey, more than three out of five Americans now consider themselves lonely. Data from the federal government show that the rates of suicide have increased more than one-third from 1999 through 2018. Although studies have not determined whether loneliness causes suicidality, they have demonstrated an association between loneliness and suicidal thoughts and behaviors that are independent of depression. Alarmingly, gun sales in the United States have skyrocketed since March 2020. With lockdowns and stay-at-home orders increasing social isolation, decreasing loneliness should be a public health priority. If unaddressed, loneliness may contribute to a firearms-related suicide crisis.
So what can you do to prevent loneliness and help a loved one? Although we do not have enough data to identify the most effective loneliness interventions, the following principles may help guide you and your loved ones and should be used daily:
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