The US is facing an ‘epidemic’ of loneliness. Can art help reverse the trend? | Mental Health News

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Early one morning in the spring of 1969, Jeremy Nobel went downstairs to the living room of his family’s home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to get ready for school.

There, he found his father sitting on the sofa, looking as white as a sheet and clearly in pain. He asked Nobel, who was 15 years old at the time, to wake up his mother and call her for help.

The police came quickly. They slipped an oxygen mask over his father’s face, loaded him onto a stretcher and whisked him away to the local medical center.

That was the last time Nobel saw his father alive. He died of a heart attack at 47 years old.

After his father’s death, Nobel felt despondent, directionless. Although he kept up with school activities and his friends, Nobel experienced what he calls spiritual or biological isolation. He questioned his self-worth and how he could lead a safe life.

He never spoke about his father’s death to his friends. “The loneliness was under the surface,” he said.

Looking back, Nobel believes that day in 1969 is at the heart of who he is today: a primary care physician, public health practitioner and faculty member at Harvard Medical School. But he wishes he had received guidance at the time to help him deal with the loneliness he felt.

Now, more than 50 years later, he has written a book to do that for others. Launched last month, Project UnLonely: Healing Our Crisis of Disconnection aims to find out how loneliness can affect physical and mental health – and how to deal with it.

Jeremy Nobel sits in a wooden folding chair, speaking into a microphone on a small wooden platform, where he is surrounded by books.  On a small table is his book, Project UnLonely.
In October, Jeremy Nobel released a new book dealing with how loneliness can affect physical and mental health [Emily Teague/Courtesy of Jeremy Nobel]

A national revolution

The book comes at a time when health experts are raising the alarm about loneliness. In May, the US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, released an advisory highlighting loneliness as an “epidemic” and a public health “emergency”.

The counselor defined loneliness as a “distressing experience” arising from “perceived isolation or inadequate meaningful connections”. He said, however, that personal isolation occurs when there is a difference between “one’s preferred experiences and the actual experience”.

However, the Surgeon General said that loneliness is “more widespread than other major health issues in the US”, including diabetes and obesity.

Even before COVID-19, about half of American adults said they were experiencing loneliness, the consultant explained. The situation only worsened during the pandemic, when many people were cut off from friends and family and lost jobs or loved ones.

Although most people feel lonely at times, a chronic feeling of loneliness can have serious consequences, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, stroke, depression, anxiety and premature death. .

A Meta-Gallup poll from October showed that the problem was worldwide. Almost one in four, surveyed from across 140 countries, were identified as “very” or “very lonely”.

“Loneliness is not an illness or a disease. It’s a state of mind, it’s an emotion, it’s a feeling,” Nobel said.

“Maybe it’s best to look at the human experience of loneliness as a biological signal that you need something, just as drought is a biological signal that you need water. It’s very good that we are thirsty, and yet if you become toxically thirsty or dehydrated, you could die from it.”

Vivek Murthy, wearing a military uniform, gestures with one arm outstretched as he speaks into a microphone during a Senate hearing.
US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has issued an advisory calling for isolation of the public health ’emergency’ [File: Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo]

Nobel has been studying isolation for almost 20 years. He even developed a course on the subject, entitled Loneliness and Public Health, and founded and directs a non-profit organization that helps address loneliness through community programming.

His interest in social isolation began in the early 1980s when he was working as a primary care physician in Boston.

While treating patients of various ages and backgrounds, he began to notice how loneliness could directly affect other aspects of their health care. They skipped taking their prescribed medications, for example, or didn’t schedule follow-up visits.

“Loneliness changes how we behave,” Nobel said. “Our motivation for self-care, taking medications in a timely and appropriate manner, partnering with the health care delivery system in effective ways – that ability and the motivation to do that becomes weaker as people become more isolated.”

Although many experts agree that loneliness is a serious health problem, some question whether it is a disease.

Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University, said that “pandemic” means a huge spike in loneliness. He explained that there is not enough strong evidence to support that claim.

“Isolation studies are all over the map, and the trends over time are difficult to assess,” he said.

“If we call it an epidemic, we indicate that more attention is needed and also that less attention is needed when it ebbs. I think it is more accurate, and more helpful, to describe it as a persistent health problem, one that is connected to modern life and has been around for ages.”

Jeremy Nobel is standing in front of a classroom, next to a screen designing course material.
[Courtesy of Jeremy Nobel]

Creativity encourages connection

However, loneliness is mentioned, organizations and individuals are adopting different strategies to deal with it.

The Surgeon General’s report sets out a framework for improving social links. It includes strengthening community infrastructure such as parks and libraries, educating health care providers and reducing the potential harm of socializing online.

For Nobel, part of the solution lies in the arts. His interest in that approach was raised after he visited an art exhibition in 2002. The pictures on display were from children in New York City, showing their experiences at the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Nobel noticed that even if the young artists could not talk about their feelings, they could talk about their art. Studies show that creativity can help promote social connections.

“One of the ways in which the creative arts can be healing is that it allows people to consciously and unconsciously reexamine what may be holding them back and cause isolation,” Nobel said.

After the art show, he felt a renewed enthusiasm to explore his creative side, including through poetry. Arthur allowed himself to identify and shape his own story. “I could not have told this story about my father as little as 10 years ago, but you write it enough, you study it enough.”

Students in face masks walk across Harvard Yard, brick buildings and a bicycle rack visible in the background.
Students walk across the garden at Harvard University in early March 2020, days before COVID forced the campus to close many of its facilities [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

The connection between the arts and mental health also impressed student Diana Shaari, who is currently a senior at Harvard College.

Shaari experienced isolation first hand during her first year of college in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic moved classes online, limiting campus visitors and closing her ‘ most school buildings.

As a freshman, she didn’t know anyone on campus, and this was the first time she was living away from her parents. It was a lonely experience for Shaari, who describes herself as someone who thrives on social interaction.

“Every day you would wake up alone. You wouldn’t run into children going to and from class. If I wanted, I could spend a whole week or even more without seeing anyone,” said Shaari. “All of that added to these overall feelings of isolation. Also, it’s not so good to be with your own thoughts for too long.”

To combat the social isolation she and her classmates faced, Shaari joined Nobel and others to pilot a workshop at Harvard College in 2021 called Colors & Connection.

This was the first personal event she was able to attend since she started college and the most memorable, she said. The workshop brings together art and conversations to bring people together. It has since expanded to 31 campuses across the country.

“It was almost therapeutic,” she said. “There are certain universal elements in art and artistic expression that are really important in allowing people to connect and feel connected to others.”

The pandemic may have exacerbated isolation, but Nobel said there is a bright side.

Loneliness often comes with shame and stigma, which prevents people from seeking help. But during the pandemic, isolation was ubiquitous, Nobel said – allowing people to talk about it more easily.

“We had a common experience of loneliness. We were lonely together,” Nobel said. “That opened the window to talk about loneliness in a very healthy way. “

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