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US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy Recounts Bout of Profound Loneliness

A top US health official has warned the country is facing an epidemic of loneliness that is as dangerous to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told BBC News he was among millions of Americans who have experienced a “profound sense of loneliness”.

US health authorities are calling for social isolation to be treated as seriously as obesity or drug abuse.

Nearly 50% of all Americans are thought to have been affected.

Mr Murthy said in an interview that his own battles with loneliness came during and directly after his first stint as Surgeon General ended in April 2017.

“I had neglected my family and my friends during that time, thinking that it was too hard to focus on work, and focus on family and friends,” he said.

“I was really suffering from the consequences of that, which were a profound sense of loneliness that followed me for weeks, which stretched into months.”

Loneliness is reported to increase the risk of premature death by almost 30% – through health conditions including diabetes, heart attacks, insomnia and dementia.

Lack of social connection is also linked to lower academic achievement and worse performance at work, according to a new advisory.

Mr Murthy said that loneliness is a “profound public health challenge” that “we should talk about” and address.

“It… may surprise people to learn that the increased risk of premature death that’s associated with social connection is on par with the risks that we see from smoking daily, and greater than the risk we see associated with obesity,” he said.

The issue has been exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, which led many people to reduce the size of their social circles.

One study quoted in the report found a 16% decrease on average in the social network size of participants from June 2019 to June 2020.

In order to tackle this, Mr Murthy has called for a collective effort to “to mend the social fabric of our nation” in order to “destigmatise loneliness and change our cultural and policy response to it”.

His strategy has six pillars that include efforts to strengthen social infrastructure in communities, in part by utilising public health systems.

The advisory calls for more “pro-connection public policies” that are developed with the help of a research agenda to help address gaps in the data surrounding the effects of social isolation.

It also highlights the need for more data transparency from tech firms and a reform of digital environments.

Additionally, Mr Murthy said that there “are steps we can take as individuals”, such as spending 15 minutes with loved ones, avoiding distractions such as devices while speaking to people, “and looking for ways to help one another”.

“Service is a powerful antidote to loneliness,” he said. “These can all help”.

The advisory is part of the Biden administration’s broader efforts to address mental health, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Monday. May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US.

While the declaration is intended to increase awareness, no new promises of federal funding to combat the issue have so far been made.

Source : BBC