To Your Health: Loneliness and addiction
I was first introduced to our country’s opioid epidemic four years ago when I moved to Rhode Island for medical school and started working with a non-profit in Providence called Weber-RENEW that provides health and social services to people experiencing — or at-risk for — homelessness, addiction, sex work, and HIV. I learned about the various ways people get introduced to opioids, interventions that tried and failed, and interventions that helped. I met people who lost count of the number of friends they had lost to opioid overdoses, and I met others thriving after years in recovery.
A few years later, my school hosted 80 healthcare practitioners from 29 medical schools across the United States to discuss how medical schools should best teach pain management and addiction treatment. We discussed best practices in identifying people struggling with addiction and intensive treatments for those resurrected after an overdose. While I felt that there were so many people working on treatments, I felt that fewer were trying to unlock how to prevent the addiction in the first place.
That’s when I heard Dr. Vivek Murthy speak. Dr. Murthy is a former Surgeon General of the United States.
He spoke about something profound: loneliness. According to his article published in the Harvard Business Review, about 40 percent of adults in the United States report feeling lonely. And Dr. Murthy feels that this epidemic is one of the biggest contributors to some of our country’s largest healthcare challenges, including opioid use disorder.
Dr. Murthy has dedicated his time, since leaving his role as Surgeon General, to raising awareness about this little-discussed epidemic. He discusses research showing that loneliness can have a similar decrease in lifespan as seen in people who smoke 15 cigarettes per day. Loneliness has also been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, as well as anxiety and depression.
I imagine that loneliness is a feeling most of us experience.
I write this piece in part to spread the message that you’re not alone in this struggle. Oftentimes the impact of loneliness and mental health concerns are belittled, or not considered as important, as physical health. Well, I want everyone reading this to know that the former Surgeon General of the United States, as well as a rapidly growing community of healthcare providers across the country, are working hard to spread the message that loneliness is a serious healthcare issue that we all need to take seriously.
So what do we do about it? Dr. Murthy points to a significant amount of research that shows increasing social connectedness as one of the main solutions to this epidemic. Not social media connectedness; actual real-life social connectedness. In his 2016 Surgeons General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, he calls attention to numerous early childhood programs that can be adopted by school systems to create more connectedness. More recently, he’s been focusing on our work environment cultures that cause an increase in loneliness.
If you are an educator or employer, I encourage you to read some of these reports to see how you can help foster social connectedness among your students and employees. For everyone else, I encourage you to find ways to reconnect with people offline. But most importantly, I hope that those of you reading this hear the message that the loneliness many of us experience is real. There is support out here for you. This is an epidemic we are fighting every day so that those we care about live happier, healthier lives.
If you feel you are struggling with loneliness, depression, or a substance use disorder, please don’t hesitate to make an appointment at the Block Island Medical Center to confidentially discuss your concerns and to see what help is available.
Medical Content Edited by: Dr. Mark Clark, MD Medical Director Block Island Medical Center.