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The loneliness epidemic: How the Lehigh Valley is weighing in and fighting back

United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is addressing the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in the country.
Yaraslau Saulevich / Getty Images
United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is addressing the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in the country.

When the U.S. surgeon general declared loneliness the latest national health epidemic earlier this week, it resonated with Rochelle Frounfelker.

She's an assistant professor in the department of community and population health at Lehigh University.

  • Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy put out an advisory about loneliness, isolation and lack of connection
  • The advisory says loneliness can seriously impact physical and mental health
  • People from around the Lehigh Valley are weighing in on what's being done locally

“All the evidence is out there to say this is something that has a really large impact overall, both physical and mental health outcomes of individuals and communities as well,” Frounfelker said.

She is also a social epidemiologist who looks at social and environmental determinants of health, with a focus on mental health specifically in the older adult population.

"I think, as a society, we need to put more focus and attention on that, that population in particular, and their vulnerabilities around that,” Frounfelker said.

The consequences

Widespread loneliness poses health risks as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes daily, costing the health industry billions of dollars annually, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said.

About half of U.S. adults say they’ve experienced loneliness, Murthy said in an 81-page report from his office.

“Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders,” he said. “Together, we can build a country that’s healthier, more resilient, less lonely, and more connected.”

    According to the advisory, the physical health consequences of poor or insufficient connection include a 29% increased risk of heart disease; a 32% increased risk of stroke; and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults.
    The surgeon general said lacking social connection increases the risk of premature death by more than 60%.

    Lehigh's Frounfelker said there are different ways to measure loneliness across a population.

    "Looking at something like suicide is a strong indicator of how disconnected individuals are feeling ... and not having the supports they need to help them get through really challenging experiences and challenging times in their life," she said.

    Searching for solutions

    However, solutions are being discussed.

    “I think there is increasing interest in terms of federal funding to put towards these sorts of things. So on that end, I think that's obviously a very positive thing if we can invest in trying to understand these issues more,” Frounfelker said.

    The key is finding ways to connect people to the support they need, she added.

    In Bethlehem, Community Action Lehigh Valley is working to do that. Anna Smith is director of Community Action Development Bethlehem.

    "I think one of the things that the surgeon general mentioned as sort of one of the key pillars of addressing loneliness in our society is investing in social infrastructure," Smith said, "and I'd say a big part of what we do at Community Action Development Bethlehem is look at our social infrastructure."

    Smith said her team is implementing a six-year neighborhood-driven plan called Southside Tomorrow. One of the first steps is talking with people in the community about their priorities. The most frequent answers included housing quality and affordability, communication and connectivity, improving relationships among individuals, institutions, organizations within the community, and then public and green spaces.

    "At Community Action, through our Southside Tomorrow partnership, we're able to work with a minimum of 10 to 15 partners a year who put on neighborhood events throughout our community so folks can come out, meet one another, enjoy our public spaces, and at those events have a good time and meet their neighbors,” said Smith.

    Community Action Lehigh Valley holds neighborhood meetings throughout the South Side where organizers talk about people’s hopes and concerns for their neighborhood, and how they can personally get involved in making change.

    On the job

    The loneliness crisis worsened during the pandemic, prompting schools and workplaces to shut their doors and sending millions of Americans to isolate at home away from relatives or friends.

    The surgeon general’s advisory also addressed loneliness in the workplace.

    "It's a tremendous issue and it's one that we have seen data pointing to for years," said Connor Moriarty, the founder and director of Reset Outdoors. ”The analogy I use is that this was already a smoldering ember that the pandemic poured kerosene on.”

    Moriarty’s company works with people in the workplace by combining nature with therapy practices and team building.

    He said the signs of loneliness in our society are evident with trends over the last few years.

    “Quiet quitting, issues with retention, health care costs going through the roof because people are recognizing the fact that they're feeling increasingly isolated, increasingly alone, even while we're phasing out of this isolation that we had to endure during the pandemic," Moriarty said. "It's confusing. It's disorienting and it really deserves some intentional, meaningful, consistent effort to address effectively."

    A licensed professional counselor, Moriarty said he’s learned through his work that symptoms of loneliness present in different ways.

    “Some people work harder and dig deeper and in a way that isn't always sustainable, but appears to be incredibly productive from a workplace perspective," said Moriarty. “Others withdraw and get a little quiet and don't engage. Well, because it's difficult and exhausting."

    As the head of a company himself, Moriarty said he believes a solution to the problem starts at the top with compassionate leadership.

    “For people who are in positions of leadership, to extend some compassion, some understanding, and get a little creative about how you can meet people where they are and help support them in a way that allows them to re-engage and heal at the same time is an important balance to be striking,” he said.

    Importance of self-care

    Moriarty suggested people assess and make sure they are taking care of themselves before they can successfully connect with someone else.

    “It can be as simple as going for a walk. It can be as simple as getting a little extra sleep," he said. "It can be as simple as calling a friend and talking about how difficult things feel or how wonderful things have been.

    "Every effort we can make to reestablish authentic connection with our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and the people we share space with is good medicine.”

    Reset Outdoors offers its own ways of connecting people, such as its free weekly community hikes. Every other week the walk is catered to the helping professionals in the community, such as teachers, nurses and police officers, to name a few.

    “Anyone who is out in the community supporting people who are suffering, you are welcome,” said Moriarty. Hikes are coordinated on the other weeks to the entire community, he said.

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.