The World Health Organisation (WHO) has officially recognised loneliness as a significant global health threat. In a recent advisory, the WHO said that the mortality effect of loneliness is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day!
An international commission on the issue has been launched by WHO, led by United States Surgeon General Dr Vivek Hallegere Murthy, and Chido Cleopatra Mpemba, the African Union youth envoy.
The commission consists of 11 advocates and government ministers, including Vanatu’s Minister of Climate Change Adaptation Ralph Regenvanu, and Japan’s Minister in charge of Measures for Loneliness and Isolation Ayuko Kato.
Speaking in Geneva, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “High rates of social isolation and loneliness around the world have serious consequences on health and well-being. People without enough strong social connections are at a higher risk of stroke, anxiety, dementia, depression, suicide, and more,” he said.
Emergence of loneliness as a health crisis
How has loneliness, once considered a personal issue, transformed into a global public health concern?
The WHO’s decision to categorise loneliness as a public health threat is grounded in extensive research. Studies consistently show that loneliness is not just a social issue but a condition with severe health implications.
Loneliness is linked to an array of physical and mental health problems, including increased risks of heart disease, stroke, depression, and dementia. The comparison of its health risks to smoking 15 cigarettes a day by US Surgeon General Dr Murthy underlines the severity of the issue.
The global prevalence of loneliness is alarming. WHO states that data suggests that one in four older adults experience social isolation. The situation is equally concerning among the younger demographic, with up to 15 percent of adolescents reported as lonely.
These figures point to a widespread problem that transcends age, geography, and socioeconomic status.
The global Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.
Lockdowns and social distancing measures, while necessary for controlling the spread of the virus, have led to reduced social interactions and heightened feelings of isolation. This has prompted a reevaluation of the impact of social connections on health and the need for urgent action.
Dr Murthy’s observations
Dr Murthy has issued a compelling statement recognising the profound impact of loneliness and social isolation on public health. Reflecting on his experiences since assuming office in 2014, he shared insights from his cross-country listening tour, where he discovered the pervasive nature of loneliness in America.
In his letter, Dr Murthy recounted the stories of Americans feeling “isolated, invisible, and insignificant”, a realisation that led him to view loneliness as a significant public health issue.
He noted, “Even when they couldn’t put their finger on the word ‘lonely’, time and time again, people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, from every corner of the country, would tell me, ‘I have to shoulder all of life’s burdens by myself’, or ‘If I disappear tomorrow, no one will even notice’.”
WHO, in its report, highlighted that having an insufficient number of social connections and the social pain of not feeling connected, are widespread.
“Contrary to the perception that isolation and loneliness primarily affect older people in high-income countries, they actually impact the health and well-being of all ages around the world,” stated WHO.
Health impacts of loneliness
The WHO declaration brings into focus the serious health risks associated with loneliness.
In older adults, WHO says that loneliness significantly increases the risk of developing conditions like dementia and heart disease.
Among younger people, it can lead to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, affecting academic performance and future economic prospects.
Moreover, loneliness can have a cumulative effect over time, exacerbating existing health conditions, and potentially leading to premature death.
These impacts are comparable to well-established health risks such as obesity, physical inactivity, and air pollution, underscoring the urgency of addressing this issue as a public health priority.
What does the commission aim to achieve?
In response, the WHO’s new commission on loneliness aims to develop comprehensive strategies to mitigate the effects of loneliness. This includes promoting social connections and developing policies that foster community engagement and support.
Tackling loneliness requires a multifaceted approach. The WHO commission will explore various strategies, including community-based interventions, public awareness campaigns, and policy reforms.
These efforts aim to destigmatise loneliness, encourage social connection, and integrate mental health support into public health frameworks.
The role of technology and social media in combating or contributing to loneliness will also be a focus. While technology can connect people, it can also lead to superficial interactions and a sense of disconnection. Balancing these aspects will be crucial in developing effective strategies, WHO stated.
Loneliness in the Indian context
The situation in India presents unique challenges in the fight against loneliness, say experts. In a country with a diverse population and vast socioeconomic disparities, the experience of loneliness varies widely.
The traditional joint family system, which provided a social safety net, is giving way to nuclear families, particularly in urban areas, increasing the prevalence of loneliness among the elderly.
“Younger populations in India are also affected, with technology and social media playing a dual role. While these platforms can offer connectivity, they can also lead to superficial relationships and a sense of disconnection,” said Dr Mahesh Gowda, a clinical psychologist from Bengaluru.
Technology and the addiction to it has also led to creating loneliness, doctors opine. Dr Manoj Sharma, heading the SHUT clinic (Service for Healthy Use of Technology) clinic at Nimhans, had earlier told South First, “There are multiple cases of both elderly and youngsters unable to connect with their family members at home because they are glued to their mobile phones. They discover technology to overcome loneliness and boredom.”
Dr Sharma said that instant gratification, making friends with someone unknown can be dangerous, but they also find solace and satisfaction with such things and, hence, get addicted to technology.
“Face-to-face interaction is a MUST. It is important to engage in in-person social interaction with others. Technology can’t become someone’s family member or friend,” he added.
How to identify and copy with loneliness
Dr Jamuna Rajeswaran, Head of Department of Clinical Psychology at Nimhans, told South First, “When someone is feeling lonely, they will seem disconnected from you; they may be physically present in the environment, but their engagement will be on a superficial level and not the deeper and more intimate level that you would expect it to be.”
Meanwhile, PhD scholar at Nimhans, Ann Sarah Paul, told South First, “When people experience loneliness, their energy is decreased, they are unable to focus on one thing, and their sleep and appetite will be affected. It can also manifest as physical symptoms such as getting sick frequently, body aches and pains.”
Dr Jamuna stressed on WHO’s identification of social isolation and loneliness’s association with increased risk of mortality and the fact that it can even lead to higher risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity.
Appreciating the WHO’s move to officially declare loneliness as public health concern, Dr Sunny Joseph, a Clinical Psychologist with Nimhans, tells South First, “Loneliness cannot be equated with someone being or living alone. Individuals may suffer from loneliness even when they are surrounded by a good number of people.”
In a country like India, Dr Joseph said, “Intervention at multiple levels are required to deal with loneliness, right from schools and colleges to workplaces to other institutions in our local communities.”
He said that strategies such as social skills training for various age groups, initiatives to enhance friendships, interpersonal relationships, as well as opportunities for larger social networking are a necessity.
“Specific programmes that focus on enhancing empathy, emotional bonding, need for providing necessary social support, addressing negative social cognition will also be of great help,” he added.