The US Surgeon-General Dr. Vivek M. Murthy issued an advisory on Tuesday, addressing the "epidemic loneliness and social isolation" that is affecting the nation and setting out the framework for a "National Strategy to Advance Social Connection."
Karine Jean Pierre, White House Press Secretary, said that the advisory is part and parcel of the Biden Administration's efforts to tackle mental health.
Murthy states in his advisory that 'in recent years, one-in-2 adults in America have reported feeling lonely'. "And that was even before the COVID-19 epidemic cut us off from our friends, family, and support networks."
Researchers have found that loneliness and isolation can lead to immune system changes, sleep disorders and inflammation in young adults. They're linked to symptoms like pain, insomnia and depression in older adults. They may increase the risk of heart disease, strokes, diabetes, self-harm and suicide, as well as dementia.
Murthy’s office stated in a press release that social connections can be helpful, acting as a buffer against health problems and making communities more resilient.
'I think loneliness is a great masker. Murthy said to CNN's Erin Burnett that it can appear as different things. Some people withdraw. Some people become irritable or angry. When you feel lonely for a long time, you should be concerned. It's okay if you call a friend and the feeling goes away or you drive to see a relative. When it persists, it can be harmful.
The advisory states that social connection is just as important to humans as food, shelter or water. The advisory says that humans have always relied on one another for their survival. Modern people are still wired to crave this connection and proximity.
Murthy writes in his advisory that 'given the profound effects of loneliness and social isolation, we are obligated to invest in the same way in order to address the issue as we did in the past in order for us not only to be addicted, but also to stop smoking, being obese, or using tobacco. We are called to create a movement that will mend the social fabric in our country. We must all work together - families, schools, workplaces, public health and health care systems, technology companies and governments, faith groups and communities, to change the way we view loneliness.
The framework is built on six pillars.
First, strengthening the social infrastructure of communities involves programs such as volunteer groups or religious organizations, policies such as public transportation or education, or physical elements, like libraries and green space.
The advisory states that if benefits are only available to certain groups, then investment in local communities will be ineffective. The advisory notes that 'Equitable social infrastructure access for all groups is fundamental to building a united national and global community'.
The second pillar calls on more "pro-connection public policy." The second pillar calls for more 'pro-connection public policies'. Policymakers should be focused on reducing disparities.
Third pillar: The role of health care systems and public health in addressing social connection is crucial. Murthy urges increased investment to educate health care providers on the benefits of social connections and the dangers of disconnection. He says that organizations must track the prevalence of disconnectedness in communities, assess patients' needs, and support them.
Murthy focuses on the 'tangible impacts' of technology in the fourth pillar - reforming digital environments - and the impact it has on Americans' everyday lives and relationships. Technology can also make us feel bad about ourselves, our relationships and reduce our ability to communicate with others. Some technology can fuel the fires of discrimination and marginalization, bullying and other forms severe social negativity.
The framework also calls for greater data transparency by tech companies, and the implementation of safety standards like age-related protections. The framework encourages the development of "pro-connection technologies to promote healthy social connections, create safe environments for dialogue, and safeguard users' well-being."
Deepening Knowledge, the fifth pillar, encourages all stakeholders, including officials, policymakers and health care providers, to work together to develop a research agenda that addresses data gaps. Consistent measurement is essential to understand the forces that drive connection and disconnection and how we can address these states more effectively and efficiently.
The final pillar calls for a culture that encourages Americans to 'cultivate values such as kindness, respect, commitment, and service towards one another'. Murthy says that everyone can use their voices to model healthy connections and emphasize these values. Institutions should also invest in demonstrating this.
The final section of the advisory offers suggestions on how groups, such as governments, health organizations and schools, or individuals, can work together to promote social connections.
The advisory states that parents and caregivers play a particularly powerful role. The advisory says that parents and caregivers can play a powerful role in promoting healthy connections by spending time with their children, setting aside screen-free time, and resolving conflicts constructively. Also, they're encouraged to encourage friendships between individuals and groups. They should also be alert to how youths spend their online time and watch out for signs of loneliness and isolation.
Americans can take a few minutes out of their day to talk with a family member or friend and avoid distractions. Practising gratitude and service regularly can inspire others to do the exact same thing. Reduce things that cause disconnection such as social media or unhealthy relationships. Openly discuss with your health care provider any significant social changes which may have an impact on levels of connection. In times of difficulty, reach out to loved ones, a counselor, a provider, or a crisis hotline.