The recent appointment of renowned sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer as New York State’s honorary ambassador to loneliness — the first of its kind in America — is no trivial matter: Social isolation is an epidemic that is killing millions around the world.
I have learned a lot about this silent killer over the past six years. I’ve interviewed Great Britain’s minister of loneliness and top officials in more than a dozen countries, while conducting research for a just-released Spanish-language book about the world’s happiest countries, and what they are doing to combat discontent and depression.
On Nov. 15, shortly after Westheimer’s appointment, the World Health Organization declared loneliness a global health priority and created a Commission on Social Connection”to find practical ways to get people together.
In addition to the United Kingdom, Japan also has created a Ministry of Loneliness, and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a report earlier this year urging the United States to address an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation.”
A recent Gallup poll conducted in more than 140 countries shows that nearly one in four people worldwide feel very or fairly lonely. According to the World Health Organization, social isolation is resulting, among other things, in cardiovascular problems, cognitive decline and addictions. Murthy has said that loneliness is as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Fortunately, several countries are taking practical measures to combat social isolation.
During a reporting trip to the United Kingdom last year, I learned that its Office of National Statistics (ONS) has been including personal happiness questions in its census for more than a decade. People are asked how happy they are with their lives and how anxious or lonely they feel.
With that information, the ONS can find pockets of loneliness in any specific city or neighborhood, and use these data to focus public policies on specific high-loneliness areas.
For instance, social workers can go to a city block with a high concentration of lonely people, ask residents what their favorite hobbies are and then plan social activities after hours in the local high school. It seems an obvious solution, yet few countries are doing that systematically.
Britain has also created the job of “social prescriber” at most hospitals. About 20% of the people who go to a hospital don’t need a medical recipe, but a “social recipe,” officials told me.
The more than 3,500 “social prescribers” working at British hospitals have a database with access to up to 10,000 community groups — from stamp collecting societies to gardening clubs — and refer patients to their preferred groups close to their homes. Then, they call the groups’ organizers to make sure that they are well received.
In Denmark, officials told me that there are 101,000 community groups, a record number for a country of only 5.7 million. By law, Denmark’s 98 local governments have to offer space at public offices or schools after hours to civic, cultural, sports and volunteer groups. The government gives these groups a small stipend to pay for cleaning up the rooms they use and for a modest meal.
Denmark often is listed as one of the world’s happiest countries in the annual 137-country World Happiness Report because of its rich community life, officials told me. For instance, Denmark has three times more active stamp collectors’ groups than Mexico, a country whose population is 20 times bigger.
Interestingly, young people feel lonelier than older ones, according to the recent Gallup poll. The poll found that 27% of people between ages 19 and 29 around the world feel lonely, as opposed to only 17% of those over 65.
Part of the reason is social media addiction, and the fact that many young people — especially teenage girls — get depressed and turn inward when their friends get many more “likes” on Instagram than they do.
To address youth and adult loneliness, the U.K. government offers free online therapy sessions in its “Every Mind Matters” website. It’s a robotic psychologist you can access anonymously, and it works pretty well.
There are plenty of practical solutions to combat the world epidemic of loneliness, like those I saw in the United Kingdom, Denmark and other countries.
It’s time for countries around the world to follow their in their footsteps and get actively involved in helping people connect. It’s not that difficult, saves countries a fortune in health expenditures — and makes people happier.
Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show on Sundays at 9 pm E.T. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera