There is a silent killer lurking among us; a hungry Jaws swimming freely in the waters of our society. Apparently it’s not considered a hot button issue. In fact, America does not have any formal agency to address it, in spite of the fact that there is research directly tied to increased mortality. This issue is social isolation. As humans, we know on a primitive level that we all need human contact and human connectedness to survive. Yet research is showing us that a life lacking these attributes leads to an increase in mental illness, a decreased ability to fight off even the common cold, and yes, you guessed it… death (Tjalling J. Holwerda, Impact of Loneliness and Depression on Mortality: Results from the Longitudinal Ageing Study Amsterdam, 2016).
I’m almost afraid to say which groups are most impacted because for anyone that doesn’t fall into a category, you will go back to business as usual, reveling in the fact that you’ve dodged that bullet. But you need to know. There are three main groups that are most affected by social isolation: the elderly, the poor, and minorities. Older adults experience decreased mobility, an increase in the death of their peers and social circles, and lifestyle shifts such as retirement that forces them to redefine their social circle. Poor people are isolated through their inability to socialize in more affluent areas of our society (nicer homes, moderate to expensive restaurants, luxurious lifestyle, etc). They can’t keep up so they are left behind. Impoverished communities, which are typically filled with minorities, experience a change in cognition that starts with how they view the world and impairs how well they connect with others.
So what is the issue at hand? We are looking at social disconnectedness, where people are simply pulled away from everyone due to life (job, school, kids… life). We are looking at perceived isolation, where a person believes they either have poor quality or a reduced quantity of meaningful relationships. This is that general feeling of not having anyone to confide or. And we can’t forget about good ole fashioned proximity isolation, where we simply live far away; maybe we moved for a new job or maybe we work on a farm, either way, we’re out here alone.
There are many types of people that experience social disconnectedness. This could be busy parents who have difficulty connecting with friends. They find that weeks and even months go by without having meaningful connection with others. Also, many adults find that once they graduate from high school or college, they are no longer in an environment that, by default, supports social interaction. Adults who have hectic work schedules or work hours that are opposite of others, often have a desire to attend events, but are unable to do so. After prolonged disconnection from others, our bodies become more susceptible to illness, we experience symptoms of loneliness and sadness, and it changes our overall perception of the world around us (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010).
So how do we fix it? We have to make a concerted effort to stay connected. No, it is not always easy and at times not realistic, but knowing that social isolation will physically make you sick and will deteriorate your mental health means ignoring the issue is not an option. Have video chats with friends using FaceTime or Skype. Schedule lunch dates months in advance and block out your calendar. There is nothing wrong with having an annual catch up day with friends. Stop sitting back and being mad because it looks like everyone is having fun without you. Plan something and invite people over. Or go out and meet new friends! You would be surprised at the number of people that are not of the “no new friends” mentality. Essentially, be proactive about staying in touch with others. Don’t wait for that isolate shark fin to state circling you… it could mean you’re in too deep. Remember, it’s for your own health. But hey, I could be wrong… I’ve always been a bit of an Odd Bird.