America’s surgeon general says loneliness and isolation are big problems
The connection between loneliness and public health may not be obvious to many, but it is for US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who traveled to his hometown of Miami on Friday with an extensive agenda – to meet healthcare workers about pandemic-related burnout, speaking with LGBTQ students about mental health issues, and preparing to deliver the commencement address to Miami Dade College graduate students on Saturday.
Murthy, a 1994 graduate of Miami Palmetto Senior High School, said in his roles as a private doctor and the nation’s top doctor that he realized, through conversations with patients and ordinary Americans, that loneliness and isolation are pervasive among children, young parents and others whose lives seem filled with the presence of others.
“It opened my mind to the fact that this is a larger crisis,” Murthy said during a meeting with the editorial board of the Miami Herald at the Miami Dade College Medical Campus. “Digging into the research and data on this, I realized that we have more people struggling with loneliness in our country than people with diabetes.”
Murthy, 44, said research has shown loneliness is associated with an increased risk of physical and mental illness, from anxiety and depression to premature death, dementia and heart disease.
“Still, we don’t really see it as a public health issue,” he said. “We think of loneliness as a bad feeling that we need to understand or accept. The reality is that it is much more than that. It is a warning signal similar to hunger or thirst that tells us when something that we need and that is essential to our survival is missing, and in this case, it is the social connection.
Between the 19th and 21st Surgeon General of the United States under President Barack Obama and President Joe Biden, Murthy wrote a book called “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World”, which was published in 2021. .
Soft-spoken and sometimes sounding more like a spiritual advisor than a doctor, Murthy said social connections and trusting relationships are the foundation of societies and are essential to the success of public health efforts.
“We can have the best science. We can have the best policy. We can have the best resources to invest in the programs,” Murthy said. “But if we don’t have a community where people feel connected to each other, where they trust each other, then all of those resources will have limited impact.”
As an example, Murthy cited COVID-19 vaccines, which have been shown to reduce the severity of disease, keep infected people out of hospital and save lives.
“But there is so much misinformation that has circulated in society, often on social media platforms, that a lot of people are confused and don’t know who to trust anymore. … This is where the breakdown of relationships and community starts to hurt us,” he said.
Close ties to his hometown of Miami
Murthy’s bond with Miami is strong. He grew up in the Pinecrest area, and his father and sister are both practicing doctors in South Florida. Murthy said he, his wife and children spent 18 months of the pandemic in South Florida after coming to visit his grandmother, who was recovering from an injury, during what was to be a five day trip.
Murthy started his day with a visit to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he hosted a roundtable with nurses, doctors and other workers about their work experiences during the pandemic. Murthy said his office is working on “a plan” to address health care worker burnout, which he has not yet made public, but wants people to understand the consequences of so many. doctors, nurses, therapists and others leaving the profession.
READ MORE: COVID left emotional scars on South Florida healthcare heroes
“Now, what is starting to happen, as more and more nurses and doctors are dropping out of the workforce, more and more people are finding it harder and harder to get treatment… not just for COVID but for routine medical appointments,” he said. mentioned. “That shouldn’t be the case.”
Murthy acknowledged that burnout in the healthcare profession is a long-standing issue that predates the pandemic and is occurring in the context of other crises, such as climate change, racism and violence. , which taken together have many people wondering if the future will be better. than the past.
But he stressed that for the future to look brighter, building community and connectivity will be as important as tackling the burnout crisis among healthcare workers or the misinformation around health care workers. vaccines and COVID-19.
“We need to have a conversation as a country about what we build our lives around,” Murthy said. “For too long we, and by that I mean me too, have built our lives around work, and we’re integrating people where we can, where it’s convenient, depending on what the job dictates. . But I think it hurt us. I think what we need to do is what we’ve done frankly for thousands of years from an evolutionary perspective, which is to say we’ve built our lives around relationships with people.
“These relationships were critical to our survival, so we prioritized them,” he said. “They’re still critical to our survival, but we haven’t prioritized them in the same way.”
Why masks are still needed on planes, buses and trains
Building trusting relationships and social connections, he said, could also help many people recognize and accept that face masks not only protect the wearers but also those around them – by particularly on planes, trains or other public transport where groups of strangers congregate and many may have no choice but to travel for work or to visit a sick relative.
Murthy said COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are now increasing in many states, including Florida, and the decision to wear a mask or not is not just an individual choice, but an action that can also have an impact on others.
“To me, that’s the difference between being 330 million people living alone and being a country, being a community of people recognizing that we need to look out for each other,” he said. “These mask decisions, they may be up to us at this point, they may be our option, our choice. But I hope people will recognize that our choices have consequences for others, and wearing a mask is an effective strategy to reduce the spread.
READ MORE: What to know about masks and public transport
Not everyone may understand this message, Murthy said, but he pointed out that the recent decision by a federal judge in Tampa to overturn the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mask mandate for airplanes is ” a judicial decision”.
“It’s not the same as public health advice,” he said, noting that the CDC still recommends that people wear face masks on planes right now.
Despite the deep politicization of the pandemic and face masks, Murthy said he still sees an opportunity for the nation to grow stronger. But it will take thought, he said, and investment in mental health services, and building social and community connections.
“If we do that,” he said, “I’m actually optimistic that we can come out of the pandemic even stronger than before it started.”
This story was originally published April 22, 2022 8:01 p.m.