The Impact of Social Isolation and Loneliness on Mental Health

In a time where we have near instant connections with people, it’s strange to think that as a society, some have never been lonelier. Loneliness is a subjective emotional state, often resulting from social isolation and lack of social connections, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Loneliness and social isolation can negatively impact mental and physical health. Some of these effects include depression, decreased quality of sleep, poor cardiovascular health, and decreased brain health or cognitive functioning.

Among older adults, chronic loneliness and social isolation are linked to a dramatically increased risk of dementia and accelerated cognitive decline (DHHS, 2023). However, the link between social isolation and both depression and anxiety transcend age, showing consistent results from children to adults (DHHS, 2023). Social isolation is a symptom of and a risk factor for depression and anxiety. Since depression is marked by symptoms including social withdrawal, lack of energy, and decreased motivation and pleasure, it can perpetuate social isolation. Conversely, social isolation can increase the risk of someone developing depression (DHHS, 2023).

The importance of increasing our social connection to combat loneliness and isolation

We are approaching the time of year where fall-onset seasonal affective disorder may begin to appear. In anticipation of the change of season, it is important to understand what we can do to increase our social connections in an effort to combat our subjective loneliness and perceived social isolation. By making a conscious effort to increase our social connections with others, we are directly increasing our overall health and well-being.

Social Connection

Social connection is not black and white, rather it is on a spectrum that changes throughout our lives. Furthermore, social connection is not simply how many people we speak to or interact with on a daily basis; much of it depends on the structure, function, and quality of our relationships (DHHS, 2023).

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2023), from 2003 to 2020, the amount of time spent in-person with friends declined significantly, especially among those between the ages of 15-24, with a reduction of almost 70 percent. When thinking about the role technology plays in the frequency and quality of our social connection, there are pros and cons. Technology brings people together and fosters a sense of community, especially for those in marginalized groups; however, it can also replace in-person engagement and reduce the quality of our interactions (DHHS, 2023).

To grasp the importance of social connection to our health, understand that lacking it is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day (!!!) (DHHS, 2023).

In order to increase our social connections as individuals, think about the following:

  • Understand the impact of social connection and social disconnection
  • Invest in your relationships by checking in with a friend or family member daily
  • Minimize your distractions
  • Support others within your community
  • Seek out various social groups
  • When struggling with loneliness, reach out to others for help

For more information on social connection visit Social Connection — Current Priorities of the U.S. Surgeon General

About the Author: Jessica Marcacci, M.S. is a psychotherapist at River Wards Wellness Collective located in Philadelphia (Fishtown). She sees both individuals & couples, focusing mainly on life stressors, relationships, emotions, self-worth, and anxiety.

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