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Loneliness: The Other 2020 Epidemic

by Madison Schramm
depression in 2020

Over the last decade, society has made major strides in understanding mental health. Thanks in large part to the normalization of solution-based outlets like therapy, meditation and self-wellness practices, awareness for illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders are undoubtedly at an all-time high. But if we’re being honest, mental health and loneliness still don’t get the attention they deserve in 2020, particularly as it pertains to loneliness. In fact, roughly just half of New Jersey’s office visits for behavioral health are covered by insurance networks. That is, those who actually sought help in the first place.

According to a January 2020 survey conducted by NPR, three out of five Americans are lonely and reported feeling left out, poorly understood or in need of companionship. When you factor in the novel coronavirus pandemic, the effects of loneliness and social isolation become exacerbated ever further.

Social Isolation is More Harmful to Our Health Than Obesity

COVID-19 aside, loneliness is an epidemic in its own right—albeit a silent one. Loneliness and social isolation have also been shown to increase mortality rates in adults by as much as 30 percent. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, co-author of “Perspectives on Psychological Science,” says that social isolation and loneliness are “twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.”

Loneliness does not discriminate with age. In fact, it was recently discovered that Gen Z (aged 18 to 22) has tested for the highest average score in loneliness compared to older generations, according to a recent study led by Dr. Melissa Hunt at the University of Pennsylvania. No doubt this increase can be attributed to our increasing connectivity—especially our smartphones. The Internet, as well as social media platforms, have been proven to heighten feelings of loneliness. Generation Z was brought up in an age steeped in technology. And it only continues to increase.

Virtual Connections are a Double-Edged Sword

But connectedness can be misleading as it pertains to loneliness. FOMO, or the “fear of missing out,” can be a direct link to loneliness via social media—but not always. “Those who are substituting online relationships for real relationships, unsurprisingly, don’t see a reduction in loneliness and in fact may actually see a deterioration relative to people who use online interactions to supplement their face-to-face relationships,”  Dr. Hunt notes in her findings. “For older adults who use Skype to talk with their grandkids who live across the country from them, technology really can improve their sense of connectedness.” So it seems, in some cases, the technology’s effect on our mental health is situational.

Overall, though, anxiety and depression are also closely related to loneliness and are associated with people who experience such feelings. People who suffer from anxiety can sometimes exhibit more reclusive behavior from the fear of socializing with others. This means they tend to remain by themselves rather than in the company of a few friends. This can onset feelings of loneliness. Loneliness can also lead to depression that can be triggered through thoughts of self-blame or low self-worth. This negative self-evaluation can make one believe that they are the cause of their own loneliness. In other words, they think they are unworthy of companionship or any type of positive social interaction.

loneliness in 2020

Loneliness in 2020 in the U.S.

Loneliness and social isolation have become a growing mental health issue in the United States for the past year—especially amid the coronavirus pandemic. Until the last century or so, almost no one lived alone. How did our society become so lonely? What can we do? Perhaps it’s time we dedicate a portion of our days practicing self-affirmation rather than picking apart our flaws. Take steps toward building self-confidence, which results in feeling more comfortable interacting with others and combating loneliness. And remember, social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation.

The statistics mentioned provide a background into the effects of loneliness and social isolation and the risks that come with this mentality.

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