Lonely? The Surgeon General says you’re not alone

A UW Medicine clinical psychologist has seen this day approaching: Loneliness is declared an epidemic in the United States.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory on loneliness came as little surprise to Patrick Raue, a clinical psychologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He studies loneliness in older adults.

In a study whose preliminary results have not been published, Raue and colleagues found that 20% of survey respondents who attend senior centers or live in senior public housing report symptoms consistent with diagnoses of depression or anxiety. That’s about three times the national average, compared with community-dwelling older adults. An additional 30% report experiencing milder symptoms of anxiety, depression or loneliness.

“It's tough because loneliness isn't just about being objectively isolated or having little social contact,” said Raue, a professor of psychiatry & behavioral sciences. “It's more of a subjective feeling of distress that you don't have people to rely on, so it's feeling isolated or feeling like you have no companionship or feeling that you have no one to be there for you.”

More of us, regardless of age, are feeling this way, according to Dr. Vivek Murthy’s advisory this week. While the announcement caught some off guard, behavioral scientists have seen signs for a long time as in-person, human connections disintegrate amid smartphones and social media. We engage less in community activities and don’t attend religious services or movie theaters, or have game nights like we used to. This trend has grown for decades.

“Loneliness has been a problem (since) certainly before COVID,” Raue said. “And loneliness has been shown to lead to all sorts of negative health outcomes, such as increases in the risk for cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes. It's even been shown to be a really powerful risk factor for early mortality. And some data suggest it's equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, which is really striking.”

Loneliness also can lead to suicide attempts. Murthy’s advisory noted: “We have an opportunity, and an obligation, to make the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis.”

Raue lauded the report for tackling a difficult topic.

“I think everybody is getting more comfortable talking about personal mental health concerns,” he said. “That's so important to normalize the experience that when we're struggling, when we're feeling disconnected, when we're feeling lonely, when we're feeling depressed or anxious, it's OK to talk about that.”

If you recognize signs of chronic loneliness in your life, like feeling alone in a crowded room or family gathering, Raue suggests you seek help.

“I think that's a case where seeking more professional support can be really helpful to gradually encourage somebody to do what we call experiments, and that takes effort,” Raue said. “It's anxiety-provoking, but it can lead to a lot of positive outcomes.

“Sometimes it takes professional assistance.”

Raue discusses strategies to combat loneliness in downloadable, broadcast-ready soundbites.  

Written by Chris Talbott - 206-543-7129, talbottc@uw.edu

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