By Sylvia Chebet
Data collated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that a silent pandemic is ravaging the world, fast and indiscriminately. Loneliness and social isolation are now responsible for numerous deaths globally.
"Loneliness seriously impacts health and well-being," Alana Officer, head of WHO's demographic change and healthy ageing unit, tells TRT Afrika.
"The evidence at hand suggests that lack of social connection does indeed carry an equal or greater risk of early death than other known risk factors such as smoking, excessive drinking, physical inactivity, obesity, and air pollution."
Experts say loneliness, real or perceived, increases an individual's risk of suicide, stroke, anxiety, dementia, depression and more. WHO says it escalates the risk of cardiovascular disease by 30%.
WHO defines social isolation as having an insufficient number of social connections and loneliness as the social pain of not feeling connected."
Think lonely in a crowd. Many of us might have felt it at some point in time.
Contrary to the perception that older people in Western nations suffer social isolation and loneliness more, the condition affects people of all ages across the world.
"About 25% of older people globally experience social isolation and loneliness, while 5-15% of young people are socially isolated," says Alana, citing findings of WHO's research.
Startling as they may be, according to the UN affiliate, these figures are likely to be an underestimation. Still, they highlight a genuine and severe public health concern that screams for urgent attention.
"Many people experience loneliness, which can be incredibly damaging," Alana warns.
Social connection commission
WHO has set up a new commission on social connection to address loneliness as a pressing health threat, promote social connection as a priority, and identify the most effective interventions.
The commission has a three-year mandate, during which it will highlight how social connection enhances the well-being of communities and societies and helps foster economic progress, social development, and innovation.
"I hope that through the commission's work, people are better able to recognise when they are experiencing loneliness and social isolation and realise that there's something that we can do about it," Alana tells TRT Afrika.
Experts have noted that one might have a packed social diary, be married or live in a multigenerational household, yet still feel lonely.
"This idea of social connection is really around how close and connected you feel to others, whether in your workplace, neighbourhood, or community," Alana explains.
When people don't get support when needed most, they are likely to become socially isolated.
Alana says this happens when emotional or physical support, or even the relationships that one has, are "strained" or "conflictual".
"They may not be sufficiently close or satisfying for you to feel connected within your workplace, neighbourhood or community."
On a broader canvas, any situation that steals people's joy can lead to poorer economic outcomes. Feeling disconnected and unsupported in one's job can lead to poorer job satisfaction and performance. Quitting or dismissal from work may follow in extreme circumstances.
"When you recognise that you aren't happy, that you are not comfortable with the extent or quality of your relationships, it's essential to do something about that," Alana advises, acknowledging that sometimes that can be way more difficult than it is perceived to be.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom's post on X acknowledges the gravity and scale of the loneliness challenge. "We need to talk about it more openly. It is okay to reach out," he writes.
Among young people, social disconnection can lead to poorer education outcomes. According to WHO, evidence shows that young people experiencing loneliness in high school are more likely to drop out of university.
African Union's youth envoy, Chido Mpemba, the commission's co-chair notes that "across Africa and beyond, we must redefine the narrative around loneliness. Investments in social connection are critical to creating productive, resilient and stable economies that promote the well-being of current and future generations".
Power of connection
On a personal level, Alana says it may be helpful to get help from somebody else or take small steps like swapping screen time for a phone call. "Instead of texting somebody, make that phone call," she urges.
Other practical solutions include spending more quality time with family and friends. Alana also encourages individuals to participate in activities that facilitate access to more or better-quality social connections.
“You can join a group, a club, something that you're interested in, take up a new hobby,” she advises, adding that "saying hello to neighbours or engaging with your local shopkeeper" constitute helpful gestures.
Volunteering, too, helps reduce social isolation. The idea of supporting a neighbour or someone else "tends to give you a sense of feeling better connected", says Alana.
As the world awaits the Loneliness Commission's recommendations, there is a need to embrace measures that have already been proven to help. Psychological interventions like therapy and counselling are effective, and people should not hesitate to seek such assistance.
Less lonely world
Mechanisms to support people experiencing loneliness and social isolation need to be more accessible.
"Given the profound health and societal consequences of loneliness and isolation, we have an obligation to make the same investments in rebuilding the social fabric of society that we have made in addressing other global health concerns, such as tobacco use, obesity and addiction," US surgeon general, Dr Vivek Murthy, the commission's co-chair says.
"Together, we can build a less lonely, healthier and more resilient world."