Fighting the loneliness pandemic

Apr 2, 2022, 11:55 AM | Updated: Apr 6, 2022, 3:27 pm
The loneliness epidemic has swept across the globe, leaving everyone to adjust to it....
Students leave at the end of the school day at Granite Park Junior High in South Salt Lake on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. (Spenser Heaps/Deseret News)
(Spenser Heaps/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — This year, more than a third of adults surveyed said they’ve been sadder and experienced more loneliness over the course of this last year, and a quarter said they were not able to get the mental healthcare they needed. 

It seems the world is fighting an unspoken epidemic called loneliness.

“We are nowhere near — even without the pandemic — we are nowhere near the mental health capacity that we need to deal with the challenges.” —Lois Collins, Deseret News

In this special, KSL NewsRadio hosts Amanda Dickson and Tim Hughes discuss how Utah is coping with the pandemic through seeking connection and serving others.


The health impacts of separation

“During the pandemic, we’ve seen a serious rise in depression and sadness, and also in weight gain, which is related to how you feel overall, including with your mental health as well,” Deseret News reporter Lois Collins told Dickson and Hughes.

According to Collins’ reporting, over 40 percent of single adults — who have no kids at all — report being much more depressed. And that’s the group that was impacted the most. Collins says the pandemic really exacerbated things people were feeling already. 

“Particularly among youth, we’ve seen an increase in depression and anxiety,” said Collins. “When I first started writing about loneliness about 15 years ago, the group that struck me the hardest, even pre-pandemic — and this holds true during the pandemic — is older people who have no connections to their previous careers.”

“They have no connections to their previous activities, and they really suffer.”

Can you get the health help you need?

As the world seems to be opening back up, and people feel more and more like exploring… will there be enough services to help folks who need mental health resources?

“No, they’re never were, there haven’t been for probably at least for 15 years in Utah,” said Collins. “But in the country as a whole, there has been a real dearth of mental health access. And the pandemic, oddly enough, was good for that in one way. That is that we started seeing more telehealth.”

Telehealth did, and still does, offer the opportunity for people to get easier, more frequent access to the services they need.

“There still weren’t enough people, but telehealth did open that up a little bit to improve the situation slightly,” Collins said. “Did it solve it? No. And we still have way more people who are not getting the help they need. And they’re not getting it not only because they’re not, not enough mental health providers, but they’re also getting it because they may not have insurance for it.”

How loneliness and the pandemic affected families

Families across the globe had to quickly deal with how to still engage with loved ones, and celebrate big days during the pandemic lockdowns.

Dave Black is a resident of Wyoming who has family in Utah. He told Dickson and Hughes how severely his family was impacted by the pandemic: From his newly-wed daughter who was immunocompromised and working for the airline industry. 

“She had to leave her husband and relocate back up to Wyoming on the onset before the vaccines or anything else like that,” said Black. “She wasn’t able to go out into the store, so my wife and I shopped and delivered food to her and her mother and just left food on the step couldn’t even hug your kids.”

Black’s other daughter lives in Salt Lake City and was stuck in her apartment building with no way out. His wife and grandfather were unable to attend their social activities. His grandmother was housed in a care facility in Ogden, which was locked down. 

“My parents spent time visiting with them with her through the window and just not being able to see people, give your kids a hug really hit a home you could,” said Black. “You could drop groceries off but we couldn’t give them a hug.”

Black says things got tense when it came a little closer to home.

“Locally, we didn’t seem like we had a lot of support for the vaccine when it first came out, and then we kind of lost a lot of hope,” he said. “Just around town because of the stuff that we had lost touch with going out to dinner having friends over. It seems like the community just was at odds over [it all.] So, we just shut the doors stayed inside.”

“It became kind of a lonely few months until we finally started crawling out of it.”

Hughes shared the details of losing his own mother during the pandemic, though not from the virus itself. 

“None of us wanted to compromise her health by visiting, even though we tried to do it on a regular basis,” said Hughes. “I’m sure you felt a sense of hopelessness at the time, Dave, because you had so many around your kids and grandparents and, and your spouse who needed your help. And yet, there was such a limited way that you were able to provide it.”

“We did the same thing,” Black responded. “We couldn’t for fear of spreading, not knowing, we couldn’t go visit them, the generation that, you know, watch this come and go without any help. And my wife lost her grandpa, during the same time not to divide, but it was just tough.”

Meet the experts fighting the loneliness epidemic

Psychologist and BYU Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad is just one of many people on the front lines of this fight. 

Holt-Lunstad says the pandemic was a good reminder about how important our relationships are. 

“Lacking social connection carries a risk similar to smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day,” said Holt-Lunstad. “And also similar to other kinds of risk factors — exceeding things like obesity, physical activity, and air pollution. We have good scientific evidence of the effects that this can have on our bodies that ultimately influence our health.”

But meeting up with someone virtually doesn’t just automatically fix feeling lonely. 

“We do need to be careful to not assume that all types of social connections are equally beneficial,” she said. 

But what’s the difference between social isolation, literally and physically being alone, and actually being lonely?

“We often use the terms interchangeably, because oftentimes, when we are objectively alone, we feel lonely, right?” said Holt-Lunstad. “But yet, there’s good evidence that they, in some cases can exist independently. There are some people who, despite being around others, can still feel profoundly lonely. And similarly, others can be alone, but not necessarily feel lonely. You might take pleasure in that solitude. And so they are distinctly different concepts, yet both have been significantly linked to risk for premature mortality.”

And, despite what you might think, your introverted friends didn’t fare as well as all the memes portrayed. 

“Other data suggests that actually, it was extroverts that fared better — which was somewhat surprising,” said Holt-Lunstad. “Research has shown that despite someone being an introvert, which you might assume you may prefer to spend more time alone… but actually, introverts were at greater risk for loneliness, compared to extroverts.”

“None of us are immune from loneliness, and, and so really, any one of us could potentially be lonely. And so it’s important to be compassionate and look out for others, regardless of perhaps what characteristics we might think might put them at risk.”

The antidote for loneliness

Therapists may be the first inkling of where you might go for help combating your loneliness, but one man says service could be a way to help yourself as well. 

“In a study by the Mayo Clinic, they found that through volunteering or offering service, it reduces stress and increases positive relaxed feelings by releasing dopamine,” said Chris Fraser, the family services program manager for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “By spending time in service to others, volunteers are those who serve reported feeling a sense of meaning and appreciation, both given and received, which can have a stress-reducing effect. This reduced stress further decreases the risk of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.”

Fraser says, essentially, by helping others, you give yourself a dopamine experience — the same chemical that floods your brain after a good workout. 

“Service is intrinsically rewarding, and it boosts that social connection,” he said. 

If you are interested in finding a service opportunity, you can find the details here.

Carlos Artiles-Fortun contributed to this report.


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