With an increased social media presence in people’s lives, it may come as a surprise that loneliness is now considered a national threat to public health.
“I think (loneliness) a big problem,” said Philip Atkins, executive director of the Union County Mental Health and Recovery Board (MHRB). “People are more isolated now. It’s one of life’s great ironies that we’re more connected than we ever have been, but we’re more alone than we ever have been.”
Loneliness is apparently such a dangerous epidemic that the American Psychological Association (APA) stated loneliness and social isolation “may represent a greater public health hazard than obesity.”
The APA also states the three components to loneliness — social isolation, loneliness or living alone — are symptoms that lead to bigger problems, such as mortality, in the United States and other countries.
Atkins agreed. He said he’s encountered many people at the MHRB who have exhibited the traits of loneliness. He said these traits are often catalysts for larger problems, such as social anxiety and depression.
Loneliness hits everyone, but Atkins said it hits elderly people the hardest, to the point where he considers it an epidemic. He said elderly people experience loneliness the most because of the amount of loss they’ve had in their lives, either through moving or by death. He said loneliness can be a precursor to dementia.
“We try to support the people who support our seniors,” he said. “We’ve trained in mental health first aid, which is a layperson’s guide to understanding mental health concerns and being able to respond to people accordingly… We’ve trained folks to recognize symptoms in older adults and maybe engage them in a way that can help.”
On the other hand, he said millennials usually get a bad reputation for social connectedness, as they are the ones more likely to be socially inclusive and opening up about their feelings. He said millennials have more social skills than older people in terms of accepting people for who they are, welcoming people from other backgrounds and telling people the truth behind how they’re feeling.
But all across the board, Atkins said there’s a big push to be busy. He said the desire to be productive has cost people the ability to retain cognitive attention to form relationships by not helping prioritize building lasting connections with people.
Atkins said loneliness can be best dealt with when it’s identified and acknowledged. He said that finding simple ways to decrease social isolation, such as getting into a sports league, hanging out with coworkers, joining church groups, volunteering or getting a pet, is worth it. He said these are positive solutions that require little intervention and are the “least intrusive” to a person.
“In my mind, I want people to not need our clinical services,” he said. “I’d much rather people find what they need in the most natural environment they can.”
Atkins said there are ways for people to get the help they need, but sometimes they won’t or can’t seek it out for themselves. He said that is especially is common in elderly people. He said, for those cases, organizations like the Union County chapter of the national Neighbor to Neighbor program can help.
Linda Fisher, a volunteer and one of the founding members of the program, said the program involves volunteers of any age group to come together and support people who are “remaining independent in their homes.”
Fisher said rural communities create an increased potential for social isolation and loneliness.
“Companionship is one of the things we offer,” Fisher said. “We have people who (have a situation where) this is their primary need and that’s why they join Neighbor to Neighbor.”
She said, since the program’s founding in July, 2016, she’s been able to find volunteers who take turns seeing elderly people and giving them social interaction, as well as help them fulfill basic household tasks or escorting them to the doctor’s office or to the store. She said the person often ends up befriending the volunteer or an elderly member of the volunteer’s family.
Fisher said join Neighbor to Neighbor volunteers are trained to spot out the signs of loneliness among the elderly. Usually, the volunteers can identify what problems their clients have, based on performing everyday activities, such as seeing if they have family or friends around.
“The volunteers are encouraged to be sensitive to (the client’s needs) and to understand… it doesn’t have to be all business,” she said. “(They’re encouraged) to be sensitive to them and to recognize that their need for companionship is legitimate.”
Volunteers are also trained to be aware of any changes in a client’s mood.
“Our volunteers aren’t social workers and they’re not home health workers, but they are concerned people,” she said. “They want people to have the things they need, the services they need and the companionship and friendship we all need to thrive.”
Fisher said she plans to expand the program by extending it to local high schools, offering teens a chance to get their volunteer hours for their honor society programs. She said the program is always looking for new volunteers to help out with the cause.
Those interested in joining Neighbor to Neighbor or are in need of companionship may call Fisher at 877-354-8262.
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