The other epidemic

in Community/Featured/Headline

There’s an epidemic right now, and it’s not Covid. Virtually all humans experience it at some point. It is found the world over; in every country, class, age and demographic. Its stories echo through literature and history; it ranges from vague emptiness to crippling despair. It may be chronic or fleeting, but either way, it can wreak havoc on human health.

Loneliness is the existential human condition. But what is it exactly? Who is at risk, and what is its cure? Do society, culture, technology, and now—a killer virus—combine to make it inescapable?

Most psychologists describe loneliness as negative emotions associated with perceived social isolation. The word “perceived” is important: One person’s sad isolation is another person’s blessed peace. How many human connections does it take to create a rich, satisfying life? The introvert will answer that differently from the extrovert. So will the widow, the newly divorced man, the high school student who has a lot of friends but still feels alone, and the senior citizen who has been shut in since March.

Alone but Not Lonely

Covid’s cancellation of just about all in-person contact not just in San Mateo County but throughout the state has exacerbated loneliness. For some. Many introverts (who constitute about a third of the population) find the pandemic a huge relief. With in-person socializing off limits, the pressure to perform is reduced. Covid has “de-stigmatized loneliness,” says Dr. Jeremy Nobel of the Harvard School of Medicine and founder of the Foundation for Art & Healing. “In a sense,” he said in a November interview with Next Avenue, an online affiliate of PBS, “We’re all lonely because we’re facing a common enemy.”

Relief is not everybody’s reaction.

“Being with other people is oxygen for extroverts,” says Joe Gutierez, an associate at One Life Counseling Center in San Carlos. “Their energy comes from being with others. Right now, if they do that, they risk getting a deadly disease.” Depression and anxiety have increased by 20 to 25 percent among his clientele, estimates Gutierez, who trained in marriage and family therapy and substance abuse counseling. Admissions for drug and alcohol treatment are 10 to 15 percent higher than pre-pandemic. “De-tox centers are full. Psychiatric emergency clinics are full. It’s really bad, and the holidays—already a hard time for many people, made it worse.”

This story was originally published in the February edition of Climate Magazine.

The isolating effects of the pandemic fall more heavily on some groups than others. “Loneliness has increased in our youth,” says Kae Papula, program director for Outlet, an LGTBQ+ youth program of Adolescent Counseling Services in Redwood City. “They miss engaging with their peers in person, they have virtual fatigue, and they find it harder to develop new friendships online.” Support they usually get from school-based GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliances) are largely missing now. The problem is especially acute, says Papula, “if their families are not affirming.”

But there’s another effect in play right now, she believes: The socio-political climate in the country. “If you hear ‘Your identity isn’t valid; your existence isn’t valid; you don’t deserve to be protected,’ it is isolating,” she says.

“We are seeing a lot of depression, anxiety, suicidality,” says Papula. The trend is national. In a recent survey by the Trevor Project (a national crisis/suicide intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth), 86 percent of respondents said that recent political events have negatively affected their well-being.

American Culture a Factor

Stories abound about Covid’s links to loneliness. But national research suggests a more nuanced picture. Several 2020 studies, including one by Florida State’s College of Medicine, show that Americans were not reporting significantly higher levels of loneliness compared to the pre-Covid time. What research does say: Americans were lonely to start with, and culture itself may be to blame.

Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz, authors of the 2009 book “The Lonely American,” see Americans as worshiping at the twin altars of busyness and self-determinism.

“People in our society drift away from social connections because of both a push and a pull,” they wrote. “The push is the frenetic, overscheduled, hyper-networked intensity of modern life. The pull is the American pantheon of the self-reliant heroes who stand apart from the crowd.”

In the past 60 years, the number of Americans living in one-person households rose from seven to 25 percent. Americans are not as likely to live in multi-generational households as in other countries. In the Cigna U.S Loneliness Index published last year, 61 percent of adults in the U.S. reported that they “sometimes” or “always” feel lonely.

Certain life events are likely to kick-start loneliness, at least temporarily. The death of a spouse. A divorce. The last child leaving home. Moving to a new community. But loneliness ebbs and flows with the seasons of life, according to social scientists, and in fairly predictable ways. Data from the UCLA Loneliness Scale, among others, reveals the patterns.

Youth is a time to seek out one’s identity; make choices about friends, partners, and careers. Interacting with a lot of people makes sense for this kind of experimentation, so young people may feel a need for many relationships—and suffer if they perceive their number is too low.

Quality Friendships

Once established with families and careers, middle-aged people often winnow the quantity of their friendships and focus more on quality. They build deeper connections with fewer people, often around interests that dominate that time of their lives— the young mothers group; the golf club; professional organizations.

Loneliness often becomes prevalent in older people, as they suffer declines in health and mobility, and friends die. Covid has been devastating for this group.

“Before the pandemic, we were doing 25 lunches a week,” says Bruce Utecht, who directs the senior lunch program as one offering of Redwood City’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department. “Now, it’s 400 per day.” In normal times, the program offers clubs, classes, and social events, in addition to the food service. These are a lifeline for local seniors.

Today, it’s mostly virtual, except for the lunches. “Now, it’s curbside pickup or drop off at their homes,” says Utecht, whose staff and volunteers managed the herculean ramp-up. Parks & Rec redeployed staff and volunteers from all over to pull it off; from March through early January, they had delivered 63,000 lunches. “We take a lot of pride in what we’ve been able to do,” says Utecht, “getting our seniors what they need.” Staff tries to make meal service fun, with costumes, holiday celebrations, take-home games, favors, exercise guides—-all within pandemic protocols.

Making time to talk with seniors is one of the biggest challenges. “Sometimes, we are the only human contact they will have all day,” he says. “We try to visit—when they drive up, on their front porch at the drop off, on the phone. Some of them just need to talk.”

The digital divide is a huge problem, Utecht adds. “We have a lot of people who don’t have a computer or a cell phone. We use Zoom some, but there is a huge amount of services they don’t receive.” Right now, city staff is trying to figure out how to help seniors with tax season—usually a big demand. After that? “Maybe vaccine delivery,” he muses.

Technology: Blessing or Curse?

In 2021, technology irrefutably fuels human interaction. Online dating (there are roughly 2,500 such sites in America) has eclipsed other methods for meeting romantic partners. Seventy-seven percent of Americans have some kind of social media account. Websites like Meetup, EventBrite and Groupspaces connect millions of people every year, often around common interests, and usually for in-person interactions. Today’s Gen Z-ers (born 1997-2015) are the first generation to grow up fully wired and fully mobile. They are voracious consumers of social media and online gaming.

Is all this connectedness a panacea for loneliness?

Sherry Turkle doesn’t think so. An MIT sociologist and clinical psychologist, Turkle has published extensively on technology and human interaction. “We are tempted to run away from the people we are with to the pleasures of our phones,” she writes in her book “Alone Together; Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other.”

Turkle writes, “It might be a text or a game. It might be an Instagram or Snapchat or Twitter feed. … We content ourselves with a text or an e-mail when a conversation would better convey our meaning. … We settle for less empathy, less attention, less care from other human beings.” She points to research that documents a 40 percent drop in the markers of empathy among college students over the past 30 years. “Since most of that decline occurred in the last decade of the work, it makes sense to link the empathy gap to the presence of digital communications.”

Others insist technology is a blessing, especially when used to enhance existing relationships or forge new ones that are meaningful.

Meeting Up Online

Erin Dahl of Pacifica joined her first Meetup group almost 10 years ago. A school district data support specialist, Dahl was clear about her motivation. “These groups are not for desperately lonely people who have no lives,” she says. “I did it to supplement the great life I already have.” She loved the experience, and when she moved to the coastal city a few years ago, she started her own Meetup group—this one for women over 50.

“Our group is about making friends,” Dahl says, “not just attending events. I wanted women who were at a certain stage in life—looking ahead at a next chapter, after careers, after kids.” The group now has about 70-80 members, who hike, have dinner, see movies, and go on outings throughout the Bay Area (or did, pre-Covid). Friendships have formed; the members see each other outside the events.

Right now, the group “is a lifeline for some of our members,” says Dahl, “especially those who don’t work.” Except for socially distant walks, the programs have gone virtual.

Gutierez, of One Life Counseling Center, thinks now is a time for parents to “lighten up on restricting screen time for their kids.” He believes technology can deliver connections they desperately need for mental well-being and normal development. He also sees a difference between “one-way” media like Facebook and Instagram, and interactive media, like Discord (a live chat platform).

He lauds games like Minecraft, “where it’s less about the game and more about the social interaction. They often stop playing just to chat. I would tell parents to be careful about taking that away. There’s already a big sense of loss among kids who have sacrificed the prom, graduation, and other milestones. They are losing the freedom to become themselves.”

Combatting Loneliness

Mental health professionals say it’s difficult to tease apart loneliness from depression and anxiety, and harder still to disrupt the cycle. But there are strategies that work. “Activation therapy” is one Gutierez uses. “Get outside,” he says. “Walk around the block. Do push-ups; something active, outside your room. Isolating is the worst thing you can do.”

Groups like Dahl’s are helpful for getting through isolating times, even if they are largely virtual. “We cannot wait to get back together,” she says. In the meantime, members continue to build connections with online offerings. (Meetup is just one platform for creating social connection; visit meetup.com for more information.)

Another recommendation: If virtual is the only game in town, don’t let perfection get in the way of good. “Zoom and Discord are essential right now,” says Papula of Outlet. “Our numbers are down because our clients have virtual fatigue. But those who do participate get a lot out of it.” She believes her organization will move forward with a hybrid of virtual and in-person options that will serve them well in the future.

Many mental health professionals—themselves at risk for stress while serving the lonely—find solace in an unexpected place: the strength with which their clients face adversity. “I am in awe of our youth,” says Papula, “their brilliance; their resilience; how discerning they are. They are wise beyond their years because they’ve had to be. Things will be different in the future and they have great ideas about that. It’s our job to listen to them.”

Living by Example

Utecht echoes this admiration for the older people he serves. “They really are the greatest generation. They are a shining example for volunteering, for helping. They don’t talk it about it much. But they are doers. They are frugal. They are stoic.”

Commenting on the toughness of the times, one man Utecht spoke to shrugged and offered the observation: “I saw the flag raised at Iwo Jima. I went through two World Wars.”

Difficult as the pandemic has been, now is the time to create new traditions, Gutierez contends. “Call an old friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Schedule Zoom sessions with family. Get in the car and drive down the coast. Host a virtual happy hour. Create a book club. Learn the ukulele. Make a list of 10 things you’ve always wanted to try. Look at this time as a gift.”

His advice to those fortunate enough not to be feeling the loneliness blues?

“Be on the lookout for people who seem isolated, anxious, depressed,” Gutierez says. “Watch for the signs. If you have not heard from someone in a while, give them a call. Check in. We should all be helping each other through this.”

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