In the US, opioids claimed 70,000 lives last year; suicide took another 47,000, while there were a staggering 1.3million attempts by people to end their own lives. Meanwhile, new reports on both sides of the Atlantic show increases in life expectancy are slowing – or worse, reversing – as diseases linked to lifestyle factors expedite our mortality. Many people believe these are all symptoms of something deeper: a loneliness epidemic that started decades ago and has its roots in loss of identity, solidarity and meaning.
In our work, nearly 4,000 miles apart but echoing across an ocean, we have come to understand that community and a sense of belonging are not just desirable in our everyday lives, but necessary for the very survival of our societies. People with a strong sense of genuine connectedness and community experience lower rates of mental health issues, lower rates of smoking, drinking, and sedentary lifestyle, and better health overall. They live longer, are broadly happier, and they have more people to rely on when times get tough.
That’s why, in some of the UK’s biggest cities – where globalisation, gentrification, digitisation, transience and shorter business cycles are changing neighbourhoods faster than ever – The Cares Family is bringing people together again. 5,000 older people with deep roots in their communities but increasingly few connections, and 5,000 young professionals with hundreds of connections but shallow roots in their areas, are sharing 600 social clubs a year. Saturday night dance parties, new tech workshops, sports nights and lunches at shiny new skyrises all help the two loneliest age groups to share time, laughter, and the new connections that really matter in an era of rapid change. A one-to-one friendship program for people who can struggle to get out of their homes to access community has helped people share 10,000 hours across the generations, and to ‘feel part of something bigger’ than themselves.
In the US, Mercy Health believes the healthcare system has a role to play too, not just in the traditional medical sense but also by being radically inclusive in how all people, including those with substance use disorders, find connection in a disconnected world. Mercy Health’s mainstreaming of evidence-based addiction treatment into the delivery of routine medical care builds communities – and trust – around thousands of people whose lack of fundamental connection has brought them too close to the brink. Through collaboration with over a dozen treatment providers in the community, this work has challenged more people to grapple with long-held biases about addiction and is helping to ensure no class of people is forgotten.
Harnessing this power of community is so important because major forces are sowing separation across the western world. In the UK, the implications of Brexit are finally becoming reality. But this legal departure from an established union will not fix our wider malaise because it doesn’t deal with the causes: the inequalities of power, wealth, opportunity and connection brought about partly by deindustrialization and which are only likely to deepen with further automation. And in the U.S., it’s difficult to find a community that hasn’t been ravaged by those same pressures.
But the good news is that if these trends start and are perpetuated by our own behaviours, they can surely be reversed by taking control of what makes us human in the first place: our empathy.
To take back that control, we should first note that genuine connections rarely take place on social media, which is in fact shown to breed or exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation. So instead of texting our friends to wish them happy holidays, we should make the effort this season to sit down with them and break bread. We should pop over to our neighbours to share a mince pie moment: the Great Get Together will even send you a pack to help you get started.
We should also recognise that giving doesn’t have to be material. It can be a smile, a hug, a donation of time, a question – even with a stranger. Sometimes, simply being with someone, sharing their experience, on their terms, hearing their story and listening deeply is enough.
Institutions are starting to acknowledge this. The appointment of a loneliness minister in the UK and a government plan to tackle the loneliness epidemic is a radical step. It’s one the US government should replicate in tackling its opioid crisis, putting community at the heart of the answer – because you can’t solve a social problem with a medical solution alone. It takes people, being with people, to solve our disconnection epidemic. And once the holidays are over and the baubles are packed away, we should think about how we practice our empathy throughout the rest of the year too – because connection is for life, not just the holidays.
So while our times may feel anxious and the terrain occasionally bleak, we should take power and optimism in the fact that we can all do something to feel more connected, closer to one another – by re-raising our empathy and taking action on our longing for community. The heightening division in both our countries is surely a cue to reach out.
Alex Smith is is the Founder and Chief Executive of The Cares Family group and an Obama Foundation Fellow
Navdeep Kang is Director of Operations for Behavioural Health at Mercy Health in Cincinnati and an Obama Foundation Fellow