Harnessing technology to address loneliness and social isolation

Sept. 11, 2020

Social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic is a public health concern, and resources are available to help people stay connected even while physically distanced, wrote Vice Adm. Jerome M. Adams M.D., M.P.H., Surgeon General of the United States and Lance Robertson, Administrator, Administration for Community Living (ACL) in a post on the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) blog. 

Physical distancing has played a critical role in reducing the spread of COVID-19 and, particularly in hotspots and for people at increased risk of serious illness, it continues to save lives. However, physical distancing also is increasing risk of social isolation for many, particularly older adults and people with disabilities, which is a serious issue. 

Research tells us that social isolation can threaten health, and regular social interactions and having a strong personal network are important to a person's mental and physical health, resilience, and longevity. In fact, loneliness can pose as grave a threat to a person's health as smoking, obesity, or substance abuse. Loneliness can take a toll on one's physical, mental, and emotional health and may manifest in various ways. Health concerns stemming from social deprivation include high blood pressure, sleeplessness or less restful sleep, anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide. In addition, lack of human interaction may increase hormone levels that contribute to inflammation and weakened immunity, thereby increasing the risk of diseases. 

In a recent Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 40 percent of survey respondents experienced anxiety or depressive disorder, trauma- and stressor-related disorder, an onset or increase of substance use to cope with stress, or suicidal ideation related to COVID-19. Not surprisingly, the mental health implications of loneliness may lead to decreases in performance or productivity. These findings are important for remote workers, employers and educators. Loneliness may affect a person's creativity, reasoning, and decision-making and may lead to cognitive decline. 

Loneliness stemming from social isolation is a public health concern that must be addressed – and COVID-19 has increased the urgency. The good news is that there are many resources available to help people become—and remain—connected even while they are physically isolated, which can help ward off loneliness. The bad news is that people often are not aware of these assets. 

The HHS, ACL and Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH) have partnered with other supporting entities to help people become—and remain—connected and ward off loneliness, even while they are physically isolated. The Mobilizing and Empowering the Nation and Technology to Address Loneliness & social isolation (MENTAL) Health Challenge seeks to spur development of an easy to use, online tool that helps older adults, people with disabilities, and veterans learn about and access resources that can help them stay connected to family, friends, and their communities. This free resource will match people with appropriate technology tools, social engagement programs and social activities that fit their needs. Through the MENTAL Health Challenge, vulnerable and socially isolated people will be better equipped to engage with family, friends and distant loved ones to experience the benefits of closer human connections. 

HHS has the post

More COVID-19 coverage HERE.