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Loneliness is now an epidemic

Words with connotations to loneliness encapsulate an isolated figure against a background of blue outlines. Art by Devin Hall.

“Misery loves company,” but perhaps misery loves loneliness as well. Loneliness, a result of the absence or lack of affection in social relations, is an indicator of emotional and mental well-being. The issue of social isolation has garnered increased attention from researchers, policymakers and the public. In fact, former U.K. prime minister Teresa May called loneliness “one of the greatest public health challenges of our time” and implemented a government plan, the “Loneliness Strategy,” to combat the issue. The commission plans to connect lonely patients to activities such as cooking and art clubs, have businesses pledge to take further action to support their employees’ well being and increase community spaces, including cafes and gardens.

The reason for this stems from the epidemic proportions of loneliness in U.K., where around one in four people suffer from it, according to The Independent, a U.K.-based news and culture website. The U.S. garners similar statistics, where one in five Americans say they always feel lonely or socially isolated, according to an international study done by The Economist and Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Social media provides many avenues for teens to connect, but it also offers many ways to make teens feel excluded.”

Amy Kaiser, provisional licensed professional counselor

Loneliness is a common experience for 80 percent of the population ages 18 and younger, according to a study on the psychological aspects of loneliness on the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, a website that publishes medical research. The study also identified a relationship between loneliness and various psychiatric and physical disorders. Amy Kaiser, a provisional licensed professional counselor who helps adolescents, acknowledges feelings of loneliness in her work.

“I’ve definitely noticed an increase [in loneliness] in the past few years,” Kaiser said. “Partially, I think it’s due to the reliance on social media and teens feeling constantly ‘connected’ but also because of the increase in social comparison. Social media provides many avenues for teens to connect, but it also offers many ways to make teens feel excluded.”

This impact of social media connects with a 2016 study sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health that shows a “strong and significant association” between social media usage and depression. The research findings suggest exposure to highly idealized representation of peers on social media platforms causes people to believe others lead happier or more successful lives than themselves, leading to a sense of self-inferiority, similar to what Kaiser said.

“Social media can make you feel really good at times when you’re getting likes or people are following you, but it can also be super negative,” sophomore Abbie Sivaraman said. “It can help people feel less lonely if someone else is going through what [they’re] going through or someone relates to [them], but at the same time, it can make you feel lonely when you’re not supported.”

Loneliness is also a strong risk factor for depression. A study from Catholic University Leuven indicated loneliness and depressive symptoms influence one another reciprocally across adolescence. Since one of the symptoms of depression is social isolation, affect or mood may suffer after chronic loneliness. Risk for developing depression may also be a result, University of Missouri⁠—St. Louis Department of Psychological Sciences professor Dr. Carissa Philippi said.

“Social media can make you feel really good at times when you’re getting likes or people are following you, but it can also be super negative.”

Abbie Sivaraman, sophomore

“There is considerable research demonstrating the negative effects of loneliness on well-being, mental health and physiology,” Dr. Philippi said. “For example, loneliness has been associated with depressive symptomatology, alcoholism, suicidal thoughts, aggressive behaviors, social anxiety and impulsivity.”

A study by The Economist and Kaiser Family Foundation concluded lonely people appear more likely to lack meaningful connections with others. Those who reported loneliness in the study said they viewed themselves as having fewer supportive confidants than others. This and other studies suggest the best way to avoid feelings of isolation is to build meaningful and sustainable platonic, familial and romantic relationships. People can do this by communicating openly, making time for each other and remembering details about each others’ lives, according to Northwestern Medicine, an affiliate of Northwestern University. Healthy relationships promote feelings of belonging, happiness and reduced stress.

Because of his father’s position in the Navy, senior Matt Lukins has lived in six different states: California, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Hawaii and Missouri. He said he has kept in touch with many of the good friends he’s made throughout the moves through social media and playing video games, such as his best friend Ethan Geist in Oklahoma who he visits every summer.

“When you first get somewhere, you’ll feel lonely,” Lukins said. “Once you start meeting people, they’ll start making you feel at home. . . You just got to meet the right people and form close relationships, and then it’ll help a lot.”

After he moved to Columbia during the summer, Lukins joined the RBHS baseball team. He said he was nervous when he first showed up to practice after seeing everyone else who already had friends, but by the first day of school, he was comfortable after having been practicing with the team for awhile. Now, most of his friends are on the baseball team.

Lukins said he thinks later in life, his travels will be a unique experience he can look back on. He said although changing homes can be hard at first, he has learned to make friends by being involved in school, such as playing on the baseball team, and now has roots in various places.

Being alone, however, has its benefits. People can be alone without feeling isolated, Kaiser said. For example, solitude can be beneficial because it has a calming effect that helps with emotional regulation, according to a study by ResearchGate, an online professional network for scientists and researchers.

If you’re introverted, you can just keep to yourself and be pleased with being alone, which I think is an important skill to have.”

Abbie Sivaraman, sophomore

“I’m personally an introvert, so I like doing things alone,” Sivaraman said. “[If you’re] very extroverted, you kind of have to be dependent on other people. If you’re introverted, you can just keep to yourself and be pleased with being alone, which I think is an important skill to have.”

Sivaraman said although she feels energized after spending time by herself, she makes sure to keep a balance and interact with others as well. The key to reaping the positive rewards of doing activities individually is choosing to spend time alone, according to a New York Times article. In a culture where people often confuse being alone for loneliness, the ability to appreciate time alone prevents viewing the experience as negative.

“Loneliness can definitely have positive aspects,” Kaiser said. “I like to differentiate between being alone versus lonely and try to encourage [teenage clients] to find things they enjoy doing by themselves. … Teens learn to rely on themselves and find resilience in spending time figuring out what is truly important to them.”

What do you think the difference between being lonely and being alone is? Let us know in the comments below.

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