The U.S. is experiencing a loneliness epidemic — and at least one politician is trying to do something about it.
On Tuesday, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., introduced legislation to create a national policy to promote social connection and address soaring rates of loneliness. The National Strategy for Social Connection Act aims to establish a new federal office that would work across various federal agencies to improve social infrastructure and institute new guidelines similar to those on sleep, nutrition, and physical activity.
“Loneliness is one of the most serious, misunderstood problems facing America today,” Murphy said in a press statement. “This crisis transcends traditional political boundaries, presenting a chance to bring together right and left around a project to help people find connectedness.”
The bill would also provide $5 million in annual funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) so the agency could better track and research the prevalence of loneliness.
“Right now we don’t have any surveillance on loneliness and isolation in this country,” Jillian Racoosin, executive director of the Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness, told The Messenger. “We need to start understanding who is experiencing this most.”
Racoosin is supportive of the senator's bill, calling it a “great first step.”
“The U.S. is a bit behind in terms of the leadership from a nationally-coordinating body and government,” added Racoosin, noting how other countries have addressed what’s become a global crisis.
The U.K. appointed a Minister of Loneliness in 2018 to combat what former British Prime Minister Theresa May described as a “sad reality of modern life.” In 2021, Japan followed suit with its own minister to tackle social isolation and rising rates of suicide.
The bill proposes forming an advisory council to analyze research-backed initiatives and coordinate services across federal agencies. The council would include various agencies, such as the CDC and Department of Veterans Affairs, along with representatives of non-profit programs and health care providers.
Murphy expounded on various government interventions and social services that could foster in-person connection in a recent TIME op-ed co-authored with Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The op-ed noted the need to better support meeting spaces such as houses of worship, clubs, and public libraries. Murphy emphasized social institutions that foster identity and community, like local newspapers.
The Democratic senator also highlighted national service programs to bring young people together to work on common causes as well as volunteer programs to assist children, parents and the elderly.
Adam Smiley Poswolsky, author of Friendship in the Age of Loneliness, stressed the importance of a multi-prong approach that implements initiatives at a city, state and national level, but also within workplaces, schools and neighborhood hubs. Ideas like walkable cities or prioritizing more public swimming pools, playgrounds and local arts might also help people get to know their neighbors.
“There's not going to be one bill, one initiative that solves this,” Poswolsky told The Messenger. “This is such a huge, complex issue.”
This past May, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness a public health crisis. The announcement followed alarming stats suggesting Americans are drifting further and further apart. Nearly one in three adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, according to the CDC.
The Census Bureau’s American Time Use Survey found that we’re spending less time with friends, reports The Washington Post. The average American spent only two hours and 45 minutes a week with close friends in 2021, a nearly 60 percent decline compared to 2010-2013.
Experts suggest a number of reasons why Americans have grown disconnected, citing social media and tech reliance, crumbling social institutions, smaller and isolated nuclear families, religious disaffiliation and various other factors. Many of these are cultural issues, social scientists say, and therefore not easily remedied by a government body.
The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help the situation: Americans experienced a 5% increase in the prevalence of loneliness throughout the pandemic, according to research published by the American Psychological Association (APA).
A 2021 Harvard survey of nearly 1,000 Americans discovered that 36% of respondents reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time.” Loneliness impacted some groups more than others: rates were higher for those between the ages of 18 and 25 (61%) and for mothers of young children (51%).
Even the state of friendships is in peril. In 2021, the Survey Center on American Life published findings that Americans have a declining number of close friends. Nearly half of 2,000 participants reported having three or fewer close pals, a significant decline from 1990 when that was 27% of Americans.
Loneliness and social isolation are linked to an increased risk of psychological, emotional, and physical health conditions, the CDC reports. This includes heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and even premature death. One 2022 study by Johns Hopkins researchers found that social isolation among older adults was associated with a greater risk of dementia.
Murphy’s bill hopes to address these increasingly troubling issues, although he isn’t the first to propose a solution. In 2021, Congresswoman Linda T. Sánchez (D-CA) introduced the Addressing Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults (SILO) Act, which specifically targeted the social isolation of seniors. It was later added as a provision to the Build Back Better plan, which did not pass.
But the landscape may have changed, especially as awareness efforts have impacted what was once a taboo or embarrassing issue for people to admit. “A silver lining of the last couple of years is that people were given permission to talk about these experiences more openly,” said Poswolsky.
“It’s time for a real conversation about how as a society we can combat social isolation, promote connection and strengthen communities,” Murphy continued in his press statement. “This legislation provides a starting point for a national, government-wide strategy for tackling loneliness.”
While the obstacles might seem difficult to overcome, Murphy stressed reasons for hope in his op-ed. “Post-pandemic, Americans’ motivation to live outside themselves and invest in the common good may be at an all-time high.”