When journalists use the words “epidemic” and “crisis,” which I’ve done freely, they make a problem bigger than us. The problem described is elevated beyond our daily lives and deemed a systemic, public threat. Moreover, these terms medicalize a problem; we are the victims of a crisis, the ill to be cured of the epidemic. These terms, while certainly sympathetic, serve to distance us as individuals from the problem’s cause.
As a result, recent discussion of a “loneliness epidemic” or loneliness as a “public health crisis” is seriously misguided. There’s no doubt that the effects of loneliness are real and serious. Yet, they’re not symptoms of a disease (save for some comorbidity with mental illness). They’re a byproduct of our social structure. Loneliness is the ongoing result of how we organize our communities and whom we choose to associate with. There’s no virus nor systemic evil creating that problem — it’s about us and them.
Contrary to the language of crisis, this isn’t a new issue either. Estimates vary as to whether the proportion of lonely people in the US has changed. Regardless, the underlying problem has not. Before, a significant portion of the population was lonely, and we could do something about it; the same is true now. If we currently have a moral responsibility to do something about it, then we always have.
Each of us can do something about it because it exists right in our own communities and only so long as we let it. That has always been the case.
That said, it’s much easier to medicalize this issue than confront it directly. It enables us to acknowledge something needs to be done while ignoring our own, more immediate responsibility to actually do something. The process of social reintegration involves a series of hard questions about what needs to change, both on the individual and community level. Because these questions assign blame, they often don’t get asked.
Unfortunately, the immense stigma surrounding the issue also means the lonely person probably won’t advocate for themselves. As a result, most if not all of the blame for loneliness falls on the individual. To be 100 percent clear, I’m not saying they have no responsibility to better themselves. But, it’s no better for them to have all of it.
It can destroy someone’s sense of self-worth to believe they’re solely responsible for the suffering of loneliness. The sleeplessness, depression, and deteriorating health — all because of who they are. And so, they may try desperately to shake their past self.
There is then a line between changing for the better and changing just to feel better. How could you not lose some individuality in redefining yourself for others?
Fortunately, there’s a much better way to navigate the process of social reintegration. We can use questions of responsibility to empower and give direction, not assign blame. When we actively work towards the goal of integrating someone into our community, impetus overtakes judgement. That community chooses to grow instead of slowly rifting at the margins. So, what prevents us from doing this?
Here’s a clue. John Cacioppo, the leading expert on the science of loneliness, admits he was ashamed to be holding his own book in public because it has loneliness in large letters on the front. If even he feared association with the word, no wonder we can’t talk about it.
That’s largely because it’s a character judgment. The logic of it isn’t far from the self-stigma of loneliness: If someone can’t get people to be around them, there must be an issue with them. In actuality, this assumption holds power. The Campaign to End Loneliness notes that “as the individual pulls away from society…society pulls away from them.” So, when the lonely person arrives at the margins of society, the assumption of their flaws makes it very hard to get back in.
That stigma is a part of the reason why we are quick to medicalize loneliness. You can deny responsibility for acting to help a lonely person if the problem is with them. There’s newfound consensus in the media that doing so is wrong, but of course confronting loneliness hasn’t gotten any easier. Resultantly, the stigma of loneliness remains alive and well. So, I ask that you be brutally honest with yourself in asking: If loneliness is a crisis, what haven’t I done to solve it and why?
The call to end the epidemic of loneliness implies that we can do something. But if that’s the case, we’ve always been able to. It’s just difficult because solving loneliness is a messy, hard process. Each of us has to decide, within our own communities, whether we’re willing to go through it.
It’s not really a crisis to you unless you are.
Contact Noah Louis-Ferdinand at nlouisfe ‘at’ stanford.edu