The World Health Organization declares loneliness a global health issue

I was an only child growing up, and an introvert to boot. As a little kid I had vivid imaginary playtimes with figurines (primarily but not exclusively Disney) and dolls (primarily but not exclusively Barbie). As a tween I disappeared from the world by plugging into headphones and getting lost in the Beatles and Cat Stevens. And one summer in lieu of traditional camp, I signed up for a course on Existentialism. My point? I’ve spent a fair portion of my life in the pleasure of my own company. Sometimes by choice, definitely. But many times simply out of habit. There have been moments in my life when I’ve felt achingly lonely. About ten years ago I was in a very bad mental state, and am eternally grateful to my beloved aunt for letting me stay with her night after night when I felt almost physically unwell being alone.

But here’s the confounding thing about loneliness: so many people feel it. If so many of us feel lonely, surely there must be a way to feel lonely together, and from there, ultimately, to be un-lonely together? As with anything, the first step is naming the situation. The World Health Organization (WHO) has officially labeled loneliness a global issue. US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy will be one of two leaders of a new, three-year commission examining the ways loneliness impacts physical, mental, and emotional well being:

Earlier this week, the WHO launched the Commission on Social Connection, which, according to a news release, aims “to address loneliness as a pressing health threat, promote social connection as a priority and accelerate the scaling up of solutions in countries of all incomes.”

The group is led by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy and African Union Youth Envoy Chido Mpemba and also includes “11 leading policy-makers, thought leaders and advocates,” per the release.

The new commission will for the next three years and will look at how loneliness and social isolation can affect physical, mental and emotional health, with Murthy, 46, suggesting that the effects can be just as bad as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than those seen in relation to obesity and not maintaining one’s physical health.

“I am thrilled to work closely with an outstanding group of Commissioners on advancing social connection — a vital component of well-being. Together, we can build a world that is less lonely, healthier, and more resilient,” Murthy said in a statement.

He added, “Given the profound health and societal consequences of loneliness and isolation, we have an obligation to make the same investments in rebuilding the social fabric of society that we have made in addressing other global health concerns, such as tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis.”

In a statement of her own, Mpemba, 35, said, “Young people are not immune to loneliness. Social isolation can affect anyone, of any age, anywhere.”

“Across Africa and beyond, we must redefine the narrative around loneliness,” she continued. “Investments in social connection are critical to creating productive, resilient and stable economies that promote the well-being of current and future generations.”

[From People]

So I needed more info on that 15 cigarettes comment — what do they mean, that loneliness affects your lungs? But this one seems to be down to People’s excerpting, because Dr. Murthy clearly explains at that “The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.” I don’t know why I feel relieved with that clarification, but I do. Dr. Murthy also says that he had begun early research on loneliness affecting Americans well before Covid and lockdown. He rightly notes that this issue was prevalent before the isolation of lockdown, but was undeniably exacerbated by it. I’m glad WHO is recognizing loneliness as a serious health issue. Because it is. I’m not quite sure what practical remedies come out of this — it’s not like you can get a vaccine for loneliness (oh, if only!!). But I look forward to being pleasantly surprised by the findings of Vivek Murthy and Chido Mpemba. Until then, I’ll still be listening to the Beatles and catching up on my Nietzsche.

photos credit: MediaPunch/Backgrid, pat__ on Unsplash, Denniz Futalan and Vadim B on Pexels

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

27 Responses to “The World Health Organization declares loneliness a global health issue”

Comments are Closed

We close comments on older posts to fight comment spam.

  1. ThatsNotOkay says:

    It is an epidemic. And a major part of the solution is to get off your phones and off social media. Yeah, I said it.

    • Normades says:

      I agree that getting off your phones is a start but if certain lonely people have no where to go what do they do?

      • Normades says:

        I am blessed to be able to walk my daughter to school and also have drinks with my friends, not everyone is so lucky

      • mel says:

        Go outside! Join a club! Say hello to people. Put yourself out there. I hear people complain about my city being “unfriendly” but then expect everyone else to invite them and be friendly. It’s SO important to be a bit uncomfortable by doing new things and meeting new people. Not everyone will be a best friend and not every activity will be a hobby for life. But I guarantee the more you do it, the easier it gets and the more full your life will be.

        The reason we are lonely is because people think the phone is the only place to be social!

      • Megan says:

        If putting down your phone was the solution to this problem WHO wouldn’t be declaring it a global health issue. There is obviously a mental health component that won’t be cured by a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. Not to mention billions of people don’t own smart phones.

      • Elle says:

        I think there should be a distinction though between being on your phone in general and being on social media, as you stated.

        I am on my phone for the majority of the hours I am awake and not eating, working, or spending time with my husband. Let’s say it’s a rainy weekend and my husband is watching football. I might be on my phone for 12 hours a day. But one of those hours I am catching up on texts and emails, one hour I am reading the news, one hour I am on social media, and the other 9 hours I am reading a book on my kindle app. Or maybe I’m watching a movie for three hours and then I have six hours left to read.

        So I personally really think it depends how you are using your phone. And if you’re in a bad state or feeling lonely, social media is the worst way to handle it for most people (not all).

    • theRobinsons says:

      I Think you’re right, also there is a coldness developing about the ability to feel for others. It’s so thick it can be cut with a knife.

    • Zengirl says:

      100% Just go to any place crowded with people to see how we are alone in our own bubbles on our phones.

    • FancyPants says:

      I find this really insulting, as much as people telling me “just go out and meet people!” I’m at the point where I react with a quasi-anger now: “when was the last time YOU just went out and met someone at random who then agreed to try to develop a friendship- HUH?” [I’m working on this reaction in therapy] I try really hard. I go to Meetups. I go hiking. I go to the beach. I do races. I go to local events. I travel. The problem is I have to do everything alone. I invite people to do things with me all the time, even offer to pay, and they just won’t. This has been going on for 20 years now, and I have to admit I have had enough of it. I’m eager to see what the WHO suggests to do, because no, @thatsnotokay, putting my phone down isn’t going to materialize me a hiking buddy. What an asinine thing to say.

      • BeanieBean says:

        I am late to this convo & probably nobody will read this, but I agree with you! ‘Just put down your phone!’ is equivalent to telling someone obese to just eat less & exercise more! It’s far too facile & just not helpful.

  2. Mimi says:

    This is great news! I worked with a researcher whose area of focus was on loneliness and her work was looked down upon by some of our other researchers as less serious. She’s been working hard for years to get recognition from major health organizations of loneliness as one of the social determinants of health. I hope she is celebrating this milestone.

  3. MoxyLady007 says:

    Loneliness is almost never self imposed.

    Or if it is, it’s due to exacerbating mental illnesses.

    It’s well documented that neurodivergent people need a lot more “recovery” time from social situations. But that puts us at a disadvantage because the NT people are meeting up 2 or 3 times as often which tends to put us more on the outskirts of groups.

    People with anxiety and depression are likely to withdraw from their friends and family when things are hard. It’s hard to reconnect again afterwards.

    Introverts or people with sensory issues or autistics or adhd individuals have trouble at big or crowded or loud events.

    When I lived in Nj everyone kept telling me to “find my tribe” (super racist btw) but it’s impossible when you have two children with sensory needs that require last minute changes, accommodations from friends and them not wanting to interact with other kids due to those sensory issues.

    It’s an extremely complex issue.

    • Kate says:

      Yes, all of this.

    • Dina says:

      Yep all of this. I suffer from depressive episodes/anxiety (and more recently, PMDD added to the mix 🙁 ) but no matter how much I need and want my friends there, I always isolate myself and need to be alone and it just makes it so much worse. I dunno what the answer is, but i know how achingly alone that can be and I hate it alot.

  4. theRobinsons says:

    I Think you’re right, also there is a coldness developing about the ability to feel for others. It’s so thick it can be cut with a knife.

  5. Jen says:

    Yes please. I was recently thinking about what I really want in life before I die is a deeper emotional connection with my fellow human travelers. I’m ready. So glad Dr. Vivek Murthy is bringing attention to this issue. Looking forward to finding solutions together.

  6. Normades says:

    Loneliness definitely develops in later age. We don’t socialize like we used to and it’s harder to make friends. I can totally relate. I cherish my old friends and try to make new ones when I can. But it’s of course hard.

  7. Macky says:

    They also need to consider the money factor. Our overlords are so profit driven that they are counting all are pennies. It becomes hard to socialize. That’s why you see so many arguments and people hanging out in parking lots. They are trying to get every last interaction out. You just paid $500 to listen to lip sync, hanging in the parking lot trying to make friends doesn’t sound desperate.

    We need cheaper options while everyone behaves in a way that allows cheaper options. Example discount day at the restaurant doesnt mean you bother the waitress like you tipping $20.

    Another example. having a nice lunch out. I could go anywhere and strike up a conversation. Not today. people touching everything and then their food. You got stand-offish behavior because they want an Instagram person. It’s weird. Cause even Instagram people don’t wear makeup every day.

    And a lot of people have developed social anxiety.

  8. girl_ninja says:

    This is very important work that Surgeon General Murthy is doing. Another reason we have to be sure to get out the vote and re-elect Biden-Harris in 2024. We know that republicans do not care about the health of its citizens in any shape or form. They’re too busy trying to take away Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.

  9. BlueNailsBetty says:

    I think the 15 cigarettes comment is an analogy between the vascular damage from smoking and the vascular damage from loneliness induced stress. One of the common factors of people who live into their 90’s and higher is social connections (family and/or friends and even working).

  10. Amy says:

    Loneliness is definitely an epidemic. I feel it acutely. I try to keep putting myself out there but, at best, have a lot of friendly acquaintances and no deep new friendships. My closest friends are at a different place in their lives due to me having my kids late in life. Social situations often feel like landmines, not knowing who’s political beliefs will mean they have a very different outlook on how people should be treated ( in the US in particular). It’s just …discouraging.

    • Grace says:

      Amy, I know what you mean. Two of my closest friends have died unexpectedly during the past two years, and although I have acquaintances and colleagues and I try to meet new people, it just can’t replace the two people I had known for years and shared so many things with.

  11. Pita says:

    Recently i read about the death of third places, and i think it has a lot to do with this. Where do we or our young people go that is not their house or a place to spend money? That is all we do now due to extreme capitalism, if it is not profitable for someone it gets cut removed destroyed.

  12. J.Ferber says:

    Sad, but true.

  13. Ladiabla says:

    I just had my weekly therapy session and mentioned this to my therapist. I too have struggled with loneliness, esp since the pandemic and it is hard. I have long covid as well and that brings about even more anxiety in regards to socializing. At least I know I’m not alone in this. I’m thankful that our surgeon general is pursuing this important research. I’m an only child and an introvert as well and my parents are no longer with me. I have extended family so I’m lucky in that respect, but I have no husband or children. I don’t think any of us are meant to be alone. If I can find one decent and kind man who loves me, I think it would be enough. But what are the chances?

  14. bxby says:

    I agree with not overlooking the money component. Going outside is expensive and we need more free options! I bet that would help as well as better living conditions and quality of life.

    • Lolyer Lawyer says:

      I do a lot of things alone, mostly by choice, but what I will complain about is how when I do hang out with friends, they drink. I also have one friend who gets all uncomfortable if I don’t drink. Personally I just dislike drinking bc it disrupts my sleep.

      I just wish people were up for more no -drinking activities. If they were, I might want to seek more social time.

      Also, doing out for dinner is crazy expensive.