United States: In California’s San Mateo County, the officials declared a health emergency due to loneliness. To be noted that San Mateo is part of the San Francisco Bay Area and also includes part of Silicon Valley. 

On Tuesday, the county’s Board of Supervisors passed a resolution that announced loneliness as a public health crisis. It also took a pledge to explore measures to encourage social connections within the community. 

First-of-a-kind declaration 

San Mateo has become the first county in the US to make such a declaration. 

Although the resolution didn’t set aside financial resources for a program to decrease loneliness, it represents the county’s determination to address the issue and validate residents’ experiences, as said by David Canepa, the Board of Supervisors’ vice president, who introduced the legislation. 

He said further, “What we’re trying to do is to get people out of the corners and say, ‘Hey, look, there are a lot of people who are feeling like you. You’re not alone. And moving forward, here are some things we can do to support you,'” reported NBC News. 

Further, Canepa added that efforts also inspired the measure in the UK and Japan, where each country has appointed ministers to address loneliness. 

Additionally, he was influenced by conversations with his staff about the links between loneliness, smoking, and diabetes. Furthermore, a May advisory from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy urged the government to prioritize strategies to encourage social connection. 

According to Murthy’s post on social media X, he felt grateful to San Mateo for leading the charge. 

According to a February 2023 Gallup poll, nearly 17 percent of US adults had experienced loneliness the day prior. Canepa added that the rate of loneliness in San Mateo is higher, indicating a county-led survey of 2022- its latest data revealed that 45 percent of residents were struggling with loneliness and isolation, reported NBC News. 

How much is loneliness harmful to health? 

Multiple types of research have revealed that severe health consequences are linked to loneliness, which include- dementia, depression, anxiety, heart disease, and stroke. 

In November, a study held in the UK found that those who lived alone and had not been visited by friends or family had a 39 percent higher chance of premature death as compared to people whose loved ones visited them daily. 

Moreover, another analysis published in 2010 found that social relationships, or lack thereof, had a more significant influence on the risk of death than obesity. 

Different levels of loneliness! 

Visual Representation – Loneliness Harmful

It is found that Black people face a higher risk of premature death, which is linked to social isolation, as compared with white people. 

Moreover, in general, older people are considered to be at higher risk of loneliness because they are more likely to live alone or suffer from chronic disease, which would limit their mobility or, in the worst case, leave them homebound. 

According to Canepa, San Mateo has many older residents who became incredibly isolated during the pandemic. For the people aged 65 and above, when compared with the state’s average- 16 percent- more than 18 percent of the county’s population is going through isolation. 

Jennifer Steele, the CEO of Meals on Wheels San Francisco, an organization that delivers hot meals to seniors in northern San Mateo County, said, “It’s sort of a perfect storm for older adults right now,” NBC News reported. 

She added, “People don’t live close to their loved ones anymore,” and “Sometimes people have outlived their loved ones in some cases. Your social circle shrinks after retirement. It’s harder for people to make friends.” 

According to the organization, nearly 45 percent of the seniors served by Meals on Wheels in northern San Mateo live alone. 

Steele added, “We’re often the only people they may see in a week,” and “It’s a crisis for a lot of the people we serve.” 

According to Canepa, it is worrisome to find loneliness among teenagers and young adults in San Mateo. He gave two reasons for that- 

First, they’re constantly on social media, and as per the research, greater use of social media can raise feelings of loneliness. 

Another is that Silicon Valley’s high-achieving atmosphere may put stress on teens. 

Furthermore, Canepa added, “You have Stanford in Palo Alto right next to our county line. You have all these educational institutions. People are saying, ‘Oh my God, I have to submit my college recommendation. Oh, my goodness, what school am I going to get accepted to?’ There’s so much pressure on our young people,” NBC News reported. 

Social connections can reduce loneliness- Experts 

Visual Representation – Social Connectedness

According to Canepa, several ideas to improve social connections in San Mateo include investing in infrastructure to make neighborhoods more walkable and partnering with social media platforms headquartered there, like Meta, to encourage residents to get outside or join community meetups. 

On Tuesday, he also wrote a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom calling for a state-appointed “minister of loneliness.” 

Furthermore, Canepa suggested a county fund subsidized by sales tax could help finance some of these efforts. $47 million of funds are allocated annually for new community initiatives, including about $10 million for mental health initiatives. 

Canepa’s office is looking for proposals from organizations that fit those categories. 

Difficulties in implementing measures for loneliness 

According to David Sbarra, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona, there is difficulty in predicting what eases loneliness. 

He said scientists understand the adverse effects of loneliness but need a clear picture of all the factors that contribute to it. 

He also added that if treating loneliness solely as a mental health issue, it then might ignore the systematic factors that make it hard to socialize. 

For example, people who work two jobs have less time to spend with friends and family. Sbarra stated, “If local governments increase the minimum wage, you might do more for loneliness than getting people to reappraise difficult events in their life,” NBC News reported. 

What advice did experts give to improve social connection? 

As per Murthy’s advisory, it outlined various strategies to promote socialization- 

Firstly, policy measures such as increasing accessibility of public transportation and paid family leave would make spending time with one another easier. 

Another suggested measure is investing in community spaces such as parks, libraries, and playgrounds. Also, healthcare providers could ask the patients they see if they’re feeling lonely, as reported by NBC News. 

However, Sbarra said there is still a debate on whether loneliness is an epidemic in the US, said Murthy. 

Last year, the same Gallup poll revealed that loneliness in adults had declined between 2020 and early 2021. 

According to Sbarra, people might feel less lonely if they re-adjust to social activities post-pandemic. 

However, he said, governments must see socialization as a public health priority. He added, “Thinking of your relationships as important to your health as you do physical activity, diet, and sleep is the key messaging here,” 

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