It’s not as if loneliness had never been on health researchers’ radar before COVID-19.

A 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation report found that nearly 60 million Americans – or 22% – often or always felt lonely or isolated. The problem is particularly poignant in adults over 60, 43% of whom reported feeling lonely.

And in 2019, just prior to the pandemic’s outbreak in America, the Health Resources & Services Administration cited a staggering warning that social isolation can cause as much harm as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Loneliness spiked to crisis status during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report from Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project, which found more than a third of all Americans – 36% – feel “serious loneliness.” That includes 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with younger children.

“The pandemic escalated (isolation) to an epidemic that carries long-term consequences that could potentially damage, or even cost, countless lives."
— Karie Batzler, Capital Blue Cross director of behavioral health

“Emotional and physical isolation were already underreported problems prior to the pandemic,” said Karie Batzler, director of behavioral health at Capital Blue Cross. “But the pandemic escalated them to an epidemic that carries long-term consequences that could potentially damage, or even cost, countless lives. It’s imperative, collectively as communities, that we work together to lessen loneliness, especially for those most susceptible to it, such as seniors and young adults.”

The issue has health implications that go beyond mental wellness. Several analyses have reported that loneliness carries a higher mortality risk than obesity.

Lessening the Loneliness

The good news is we can all help fight our feelings of isolation by:

  • Creating group activities – at work, with family, or with friends – that that help build a bigger sense of community.

  • Educating ourselves and those close to us on how to cope with isolation. The Harvard report suggests “including strategies that help them identify and manage self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that fuel loneliness.”

  • Extending the commitments we have to ourselves to the well-being of our family, friends, and co-workers, particularly those we sense may be vulnerable.

Capital Blue Cross helps through a variety of behavioral health initiatives. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the health insurer unveiled a behavioral health toolkit for employer groups, and helped bring to market a new mobile app that helps users improve their mental wellness.

“We can help by understanding that what lonely friends, family, or coworkers need more than anything is to connect and reach out to others, and for others to reach out to them,” Batzler said. “But sometimes the shame that accompanies loneliness pushes them in the other direction, and that can spiral downward quickly. Regularly scheduled things like group activities, providing information about how to cope with loneliness, and guidance toward available programs or tools to handle it are critical.”