U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is introducing a new framework to address loneliness in the United States this week, writing in a new op-ed that social connections must be a “top public health priority” in the country.
“As it has built for decades, the epidemic of loneliness and isolation has fueled other problems that are killing us and threaten to rip our country apart,” Murthy wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
Murthy wrote that about one in every two Americans is experiencing loneliness at any given time, noting that being socially disconnected can increase the risk of anxiety and depression. Besides mental health concerns, the surgeon general wrote that loneliness can also increase the risk of heart disease, dementia and stroke and also said that the risk of a premature death due to loneliness is even comparable to the risk when smoking daily.
“Given these extraordinary costs, rebuilding social connection must be a top public health priority for our nation,” he wrote. “It will require reorienting ourselves, our communities, and our institutions to prioritize human connection and healthy relationships. The good news is we know how to do this.”
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the epidemic of loneliness, as people shuttered their homes and many switched to remote work during the pandemic. A study published last year found that loneliness increased globally as a result of the pandemic, with the rate of loneliness rising five percent.
Murthy, who served as the Surgeon General under former President Obama, outlined a three-step framework to address loneliness in his op-ed, writing that they must strengthen social infrastructure, like expanding school programs and promoting healthy workplace practices. He also wrote that Americans must rethink their relationship with technology and focus on rebuilding connections with one another to fix loneliness.
The surgeon general also described his own struggles with experiencing loneliness, saying that he turned to his family to help him get past it.
“During one of my lowest lows, the people in my life patched me up with their acts of love and connection. It is still a work in progress, but years later, in my second tenure in public service, I am making a much bigger effort to build and maintain my relationships,” Murthy wrote. “I am a better father, husband, friend and surgeon general as a result.”