Dr Vivek Murthy, United States Surgeon General, shared why rebuilding social connection and tackling loneliness is vital for individual and wider societal health and wellbeing, at the Campaign to End Loneliness international conference.

The quality of our connections matter

“Loneliness is similar to hunger or thirst. It’s a warning sign that we need something to survive” explained Dr Murthy, in a conversation with Kim Leadbeater, MP for Batley and Spen.

Dr Murthy was speaking at the largest online international conference on loneliness, hosted last week by the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness, bringing leaders, academics, business and community groups together for a unique conversation on how to tackle loneliness for a new era of connection.

“No one taught me about loneliness in medical school… but as I travelled the country, I found loneliness was affecting people of all ages, including young people who were surrounded by others – proving a point that it’s not about how many people are around you, it’s about the quality of the connections you have.

“When I dug into the data and science around this, that’s when I realised it’s incredibly common but also extraordinarily consequential for our mental and physical health. Loneliness raises the risk and increases the likelihood of anxiety and depression but also increases the risk of premature death, heart disease and dementia.

“People are often surprised that the mortality impact associated with loneliness is similar to the mortality impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day and it’s greater than the mortality impact of obesity and substance abuse.

“Historically, how much time in public health have we spent on these issues and how little time have we spent on social connection and loneliness? The data tells us that this should be a priority for individuals and society at large.”

Loneliness can happen to anybody across the lifespan

Kim Leadbeater MP shared how her sister, the late Jo Cox MP, had herself experienced loneliness when moving away for University and had witnessed first-hand, how much people across the community wanted more personal connection.

“Loneliness can happen to anybody across the lifespan and there are worrying statistics about young people” explained Kim. “We have to look at this holistically through the lifespan; children, young people and uni students first, then adults throughout their lives.

“Taking a holistic approach to loneliness is about physical health, mental health and social health. Until we do that within our communities and within a policy perspective, we won’t see the change that’s needed” she added.

We need to rebuild our social infrastructure

Dr Murthy agreed and outlined how he envisions the concept of rebuilding social infrastructure.

“Part of what we have to do is to rebuild and reinvest in social infrastructure. I think of it as the combination of policy and programmes and structures in a community and facilitating the development of social connections.

“In addition to social infrastructure there are two other areas. One is technology. Technology has had such a profound impact on our lives in predominantly positive ways. But what we want to understand is where technology has unintended impacts. When I look at technology and in particular social media and how it impacts people relationships with one another… I find many people, especially young people their experience of social media is so often different.

“They tell me three things consistently;

  1. It makes them feel worse about themselves
  2. It makes them feel worse about their friendships, and
  3. They can’t get off of it, because its designed to keep people on it. What we need to do is to design technology that creates healthy dialogue and build healthy relationships.

“The third area we need to work on is individual action. The decisions that we make in our everyday lives; do we prioritise people, make time for them, show up to our conversations with authenticity and our full attention? Do we reach out to people with different perspectives to learn, do we help other people in their moment of need recognising service to other people is one of the biggest antidotes to loneliness and human connection.”