A new survey released by researchers at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education shows that loneliness is on the rise in the United States and depicts how it can lead to a wide range of other health problems.
“Making Caring Common” is a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The group conducted the survey in October and published it this month in a project report. The survey results suggest that 36% of all Americans feel “serious loneliness.” This grouping includes 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children. The report was done based on an online survey of approximately 950 Americans. The data is considered preliminary but might give some insight into the mental state of some Americans.
The summary of the report acknowledges that Americans need to practice distancing measures in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. However, the authors argue that we also need to be intentional about ways to alleviate loneliness, especially for those that are particularly negatively affected by it.
The survey found that 36% of respondents reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” in the prior four weeks. Respondents also stated that they felt an increase in loneliness since the pandemic started.
The Wall Street Journal spoke with Dr. Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who directs the Making Caring Common project, which studied community and interfamily relationships through the pandemic.
“I think it’s in our consciousness that the elderly are the ones who are lonely, but young people are lonely, too,” Dr. Weissbourd said.
Contrary to common considerations about the elderly being the loneliest members of society, the survey showed something different. The Wall Street Journal noted the research found that “61% of young people ages 18 to 25 reported serious loneliness in the prior month, compared with 24% in adults ages 55 to 65.” It displayed that the levels of loneliness among people in their late teens and early 20s were the highest in adults ages 18 to 65.
The late teens and early 20s can be a difficult time without the added stress of a pandemic. “They are not anchored to their families and may be grappling with some life-defining decisions,” from relationships to career paths, Weissbourd said, adding, “Since the pandemic, they don’t have access to young people in the same way.”
Mothers with young children also reported experiencing high levels of loneliness. 35% of parents reported frequent loneliness, but the percentage of mothers was much higher — at 51%. Weissbourd noted that the pandemic has added stress for mothers while also potentially taking away their capability to have connections with people. 47% of mothers reported an increased feeling of loneliness since the pandemic.
Weissbourd added that the pandemic altered the normal social experience for children, including a lack of time with grandparents and friends. Social media has created another dimension to Americans’ experiences connecting with one another this year since people have been physically separated. Weissbourd noted that social media can make loneliness worse. “Social media is such a curated self-display, filled with posing, and a lot of what they see is how happy people are,” he says. “That can magnify loneliness.”
When asked how people can combat the feelings of loneliness, Dr. Weissbourd said that making a point to add social interactions throughout one’s day can help. “A lot of people are so depleted right now that a simple hello can be really meaningful,” he said.
The report adds, “Loneliness is a culprit in a whole slew of problems, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, heart disease, and domestic abuse—problems that all appear to be ticking up during the pandemic…”
The health effects of the pandemic could be felt for a long time in America. The ability for human beings to reconnect with one another is not only a mental health issue, but it should be included as a concern for the physical health of Americans when leaders are considering when and how to reopen the country.