Today marks an important moment in positioning social connectivity as a global public health priority. The launch of the WHO Commission on Social Connection marks the start of a three-year global effort to mobilize awareness, action, and needed support for solutions to tackle social isolation and loneliness.
Surrounded by friends, family, colleagues, and the community, I feel lucky to have such a support system. But too many people have too few strong social connections, and they and their health suffer as a result.
The teenager who is connected to social media but feels disconnected from society; the young mother who struggles to find her place among her peers; the disabled worker who is held back by inaccessibility; the grandparent who felt alone after the death of his partner Social isolation and loneliness can affect anyone, anywhere.
Three drivers encourage WHO to increase our action and ambition in social connection: the size of the issue, the severity of its impact, and the existence of good solutions. Our recent and shared experience with the COVID-19 pandemic further shows how important connection is and how destabilizing it can be when isolated.
Across the life course and in all regions, social isolation and loneliness are widespread. The perception that this is a’soft’ issue, affecting only a small subset of older people in high-income countries, is a mistake. Young and old are affected. Studies suggest that 25% of the elderly and between 5 and 15% of adolescents worldwide experience social isolation and loneliness at similar rates in all regions.
And the results are surprising: lack of social connection has a serious impact on physical and mental health, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, depression, anxiety, and suicide. People who lack social connections have a 30% higher risk of early death compared to better-recognized risks such as smoking, excessive drinking, or obesity.
There is power to be connected. In recent years, there has been an explosion of interventions, from the personal to the societal level, that seek to reduce social isolation and loneliness. From individual therapies and community-based ‘befriending’ services to online skills training and government policy-making, social connectivity is gaining attention.
We know social isolation and loneliness are important issues. We know they have serious health implications, but as a global community, we don’t know how best to address them. To be answered, what really works? The WHO Commission on Social Connection was established to answer that question: to identify effective solutions to social connectivity and to marshal the policy and funding to see these solutions taken to scale.
Co-chaired by Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General, and Chido Mpemba, African Union Youth Envoy, with nine prominent policymakers, thought leaders, and advocates as fellow Commissioners, I am optimistic and excited about what the Commission Finally, reducing social isolation and loneliness is a job for all of us, so over the next three years, the Commission will work hard to ensure that partners, innovators, funders, and, importantly, those with lived experience of social isolation and loneliness can contribute.
The scale and severity of social isolation and loneliness are challenges, but they are also opportunities. A chance to rearrange and change how we connect with those around us. I hope that the Commission will be a factor in this transition: healthier lives, stronger relationships, and stronger communities.