Mental Health in Isolation: Should Loneliness Be Considered a Disorder?

Loneliness affects up to 3/5 of U.S. adults. One out of 10 children report having no friends. New research shows the health effects of loneliness are comparable to risk factors such as smoking cigarettes! Loneliness can seriously compromise physical health and quality of life – even leading to an earlier death. The U.K. recognized social isolation as such an issue, they appointed a Minister of Loneliness. Given this clear crisis, The Rabbit Effect author Dr. Kelli Harding concludes, “The data seems crystal clear: It’s time to take socializing as seriously as exercise, diet, and sleep.”


Aside from physical health, here are a few other ways loneliness impacts us...


Social Media

Americans appear to be lonelier than ever, with Gen Z experiencing the most loneliness all of generations. Despite more ways to connect with others, such as social media, social isolation is increasing. In fact, some research has found that decreasing social media use actually lessens feelings of loneliness! Of course, it’s not so simple to say social media causes loneliness, and it may be a great alternative for people who have difficulty interacting in person.


Mental Health

Depression, anxiety-spectrum disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and schizophrenia can lead to social withdrawal. Autism spectrum disorder, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and personality disorders can cause difficulty with social skills, which might result in loneliness.


Substance Use/Addiction

Some researchers have suggested that loneliness causes addiction (see the “Rat Park” studies). Now we know the relationship is not quite so simple: substance use may lead to social isolation, or stress from loneliness may increase substance use. What is clear is that some relationship between loneliness and substance use exists. Treatment studies show substance use treatments with a social component such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are as effective as structured psychotherapy.


Should we consider loneliness a disorder in its own right? How can we treat it, like we would a cold or an anxiety disorder?


It seems the prescription for loneliness and its negative health effects is meaningful social interactions. Meaningful being the key word because, as they say, you can feel lonely in a crowded room. Find people you enjoy being around. Find people who inspire you. Find people who make you belly laugh. It might have a huge effect on your physical and mental health.


Many people are newly isolated due to COVID-19; however, others may have experienced physical isolation for some time due to their physical health or lack of mobility. Once COVID-19 social distancing is over, those who are able may wish to increase their in-person social interactions. Either way, though, we can experience meaningful social exchanges! Here are some ideas to combat loneliness in either situation:


Ideas for Remote Social Interaction:

· Call or video chat with a friend or family member. Bonus points if it’s someone

you haven’t spoken with for a long time.

· Join in on a livestream: They have dance parties, concerts, and more.

· Send a card or letter to someone. People in nursing homes, hospitals, or on

deployment would probably enjoy some mail!

· Join a virtual group: Maybe video gaming, a religious group, or a support group.


Ideas for In-Person Social Interaction:

· Learn a new skill: Take a class at a gym, local community college, or the public

library.

· Use a group meetup app to find friends with a shared hobby.

· Introduce yourself to your neighbors.

· Ask someone from work or school to have lunch or grab coffee with you.

· Go to a local event: A fair, arts show, concert, etc.

· Volunteer at a food pantry, animal shelter, or other local nonprofit.


Share your ideas in the comments!


Note: This blog post was originally published on PsychBytes in 2020.



References:

Harding, K. (2019). The rabbit effect: Live longer, happier, and healthier with the groundbreaking science of kindness. New York, NY: Atria Books.

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