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Many of us struggled during Ohio’s initial COVID-19 “lockdown.” Personally, I struggled with the isolation, feeling both agitated and unmotivated. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. It was difficult to maintain social distancing, despite knowing that it was dangerous and irresponsible. Most people were (and are) concerned about COVID, becoming infected or infecting someone else. And even though many of us know someone who was hospitalized or even died, many people were willing to take these risks over the discomfort of loneliness.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, public health experts were concerned about an epidemic of loneliness in the United States, and now the pandemic has made matters worse.

Research shows that loneliness is on the rise and social connectedness is decreasing at an alarming rate, despite technology which would seem to make it easier to bring people together. One sociological study showed that the most common response to how many close others (i.e., people with whom one feels comfortable sharing a personal problem) Americans claimed to have in 1985 was only three. In 2004, it dropped to zero, with more than 25% of Americans saying that they have no one to confide in. This survey suggests that one in four people have no one – no one – they call a close friend, even though it’s clear that social connectedness is important for health and survival.

Experts are rightly concerned about the mental health ramifications of the pandemic causing even more widespread isolation. And it is also concerning that there is no consensus on when a person may reach the tipping point at which acute loneliness transitions into a chronic problem with long-term consequences. A group of doctors from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School warned in a commentary published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that physical distancing and stress caused by the pandemic, combined with rising firearm sales, could worsen the suicide crisis the U.S. has already been confounded by for more than a decade.

Even though loneliness is a common experience, loneliness is difficult to define clinically. Loneliness is not included in the DSM-5, the official diagnostic manual for mental health disorders that we work from every day. However, loneliness is a symptom of many conditions we diagnose. It is frequently a symptom of social isolation, but the two concepts are different. Social isolation is an objective indicator of how much contact somebody has with other people, whereas loneliness is “the subjective feeling of isolation,” says Dr. Carla Perissinotto, a geriatrician at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies loneliness. Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely, nor does being around people mean you’re not, Perissonotto says. Loneliness is a feeling only the person experiencing it can truly identify.

Low social connection makes people more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, antisocial behavior, and even suicidal behaviors. These conditions may then lead to behaviors which then conspire to increase their isolation. One landmark study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure.

Social connection improves physical health and mental and emotional well-being. Strong social connection leads to an increased chance of longevity, strengthens your immune system, helps you recover from disease faster and may even lengthen your life!

People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Studies also show people with high connectedness have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, and are more trusting and cooperative. These conditions make it more likely that others will be more open, trusting, cooperative and willing to connect with them. In the same way that loneliness creates a negative spiral, social connectedness creates a positive spiral of social, emotional and physical well-being.

If I could choose one thing for the children and families that we work with, I think it would be this. It seems that higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, trust, and the ability to cooperate with others and have them cooperate with them are common goals of our efforts. As we come out of the pandemic (fingers crossed), please keep this information in mind. During the pandemic, the issues our children and families have faced may have been exacerbated or changed the issues they are facing today.

The same is true for our staff. We have all experienced some greater level of isolation than we are used to over the last 18 months. We have experienced reduced connection with family, friends and co-workers, despite our best efforts to implement technology meant to keep us together. But it’s just not the same.

But I am becoming concerned again.

After 18 months of our lives being disrupted, billions of dollars spent, more than 600,000 American lives lost, we have hit a wall. We never reached “herd immunity.” And now, due to the Delta variant, the number of people who have chosen not to get vaccinated for non-medical reasons and the lifting of COVID restrictions, the number of cases and hospitalizations is on the rise. By all accounts, unvaccinated people comprise approximately 99% of severe cases.

My biggest fear is that the longer we go allowing the virus to replicate in the population, the greater the chance that the virus mutates into something that will escape the life-saving protections of vaccines.

And we will be back to square one. We will have to go through another prolonged period of isolation and loneliness, damaging the social-emotional health of the community that we serve.

I hope this does not come to pass. Over the coming months, Beech Brook is planning on providing more opportunities to physically gather and connect with the people we serve, with each other and with our constituents. I hope that we can take advantage of these opportunities

Stay healthy, get vaccinated, exercise, eat your vegetables and don’t forget to connect!

I look forward to seeing everyone very soon.

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