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The Loneliness Epidemic in America

The COVID-19 pandemic is a collective trauma on a global scale. In a matter of weeks, our lives were upended. We bunkered down in our homes, many of us expecting to be back in the office or classrooms in a few weeks. There was fear of the disease, of course, but there was also isolation at levels few people have ever known. 

A few weeks ago, I read this article in the New York Times, and soon I saw it quoted everywhere. As a Public Health advocate, I’m well aware of the biology of trauma. I know all about the amygdala and the fight or flight response and how it can weaken our immune system. I’d always thought about it in terms of structural oppression like racism, classism, and sexism. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) research is built on the idea that early exposure to trauma increases our risk of poor health over the life course. But, reading that NYT piece was the first time I had connected the pandemic as a once-in-a-generation shock to the system, much like the seminal research on epigenetics that came out of the Irish Potato Famine. I realized that my family and I were going through our own potato famine, one that researchers will be studying for centuries. 

Social Isolation is a concept many of our partners dig into in their data storytelling (see Johnson County Public Health for a great example). Loneliness is not the same thing — it is a feeling that is hard to define and hard to explain. Being alone doesn’t make you automatically lonely, and loneliness can hit you even when you are surrounded by people. Meaningful connections can actually repair traumatized parts of your brain and body. Multiple studies have shown that loving relationships — even small interactions with friendly strangers — can heal us at the deepest level. As we emerged from isolation into connections, those interactions were weighed down with fear and division: Is this person vaccinated? Why am I the only one wearing a mask? Are my kids going to be OK at that birthday party? Caring interactions are difficult when we don’t know whether this concert/coffee date/Disney trip will send us to the ICU.

Because I am a professional data lover, I started to dig into our data library to explore what I’m calling “loneliness-adjacent” measures. This isn’t just a Public Health issue. Identifying potential loneliness pockets is valuable for all of our partners. City planners can think about built environment improvements to support social connections. Public safety leaders can plan for emergency response preparedness more effectively if they understand where isolated people may have a weak social support network. All of us are responsible for creating communities where mental health is a central consideration in policy making. 

I started off with a straightforward map of a city I’m very familiar with: Denver, Colorado. I explored where residents are most likely to live alone and also dug into a group who is especially vulnerable to loneliness: Senior citizens aging in place.

 

Then, because I wanted to add another layer to the story, I created a bivariate map to identify pockets of the city where the percent of people living alone and the percent of adults with self-reported poor mental health were both high.

This led me to think about outcomes. Specifically, I wondered whether the loneliness epidemic was associated with a rise in drug overdose deaths. Would I see a difference between 2019 and 2020? Was this part of an existing upward trend, or was it a pandemic shock to the system? When I compared Denver to the state and to the U.S. as a whole, I was surprised at what I found. The rate of drug overdose deaths in Denver climbed at a faster pace than the state or the nation.  

This handful of simple visualizations was just a quick journey into our library, but it illuminated for me the complexity of the issue and the gravity of what we all have experienced these last couple of years. I am optimistic that the people I have the honor of supporting every day — innovators in Public Health, Healthcare, and Grantmaking — share a commitment to treating the epidemic of loneliness with everything they’ve got. They know, as do we at mySidewalk, that we can’t afford to ignore it.

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