Loneliness and isolation have reached epidemic levels in our country, according to an advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General. This announcement has put more eyes on mental health and how to tackle it. Some may say it is an effect from COVID-19, but Dr. Kathleen Young, a psychologist with Novant Health Family Medicine Wilmington says she frequently saw loneliness in her patients prior to the pandemic. She shares ways we can get ourselves out of this unpleasant cycle.

Loneliness – it’s something I personally experience as a newcomer to Wilmington. It’s a position I’m sure a lot of people can be in as a newbie to an area or someone who’s been here for a while. Is loneliness something that patients talk about often?

Absolutely. It's not necessarily something that people schedule appointments to discuss with me, but it is a topic that comes up a lot whenever I am meeting with people in my clinic.

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How does this come up in conversation?

Anytime I meet someone for the first time, part of what I want to find out about is their social circumstance and what their support network looks like. And usually, whenever I'm asking questions about that, loneliness comes up if it's a problem.

Is loneliness worse now than it was pre-COVID?

Some people may not feel lonelier now because they chose isolation and they feel comfortable in that. Loneliness is really that perception of not having the types of social connections or the depth of social connection that someone would want to have. COVID definitely increased loneliness for a lot of people, but loneliness and isolation were problems long before the pandemic, too.

So, what is the solution? What would you suggest to help people get out and about?

It can be really hard. Basically, it's a simple answer – just getting out and doing it. It can be challenging because it's getting past those emotions that get in the way of it. And that could be anxiety. Sometimes it's depression for people. But really, just being able to find small steps to take can be helpful. Find a situation where there's an activity that you already have an interest in. There’s a little bit less pressure interacting with people in those circumstances because you're focused on an activity.

How can someone help their loved ones who may be experiencing isolation or loneliness?

I would encourage people to be persistent in reaching out to the people they care about. The best thing you can do is work on reaching out to somebody and improving the depth of the connection or reconnecting with someone where that connection has been lost. Be persistent with it because if somebody is experiencing anxiety or depression, their tendency may be to isolate even if that's not what they want.

There are a lot of stigmas around mental health. Do you think that people underestimate loneliness as a health issue?

When we think about loneliness, it impacts a lot of aspects of health, both physically and mentally. If someone is feeling lonely, it's likely going to impact their well-being in a lot of other ways, too.

Do you think social media helps or hurts in a situation of loneliness?

It's interesting that you mention social media, because the U.S. Surgeon General just put something out this week about social media and children and teens and how it appears to be harmful to their mental health. One of the things that's tricky about social media is that it can give people a sense of connection with others. But there's a difference between exposure to people and actual connection. And so, a lot of times, if people are really involved in social media, they get distracted from being able to truly connect with the people that they have real relationships with. I do have concerns about to what extent it's being used, how frequently it's being used, and how many hours people are spending on social media.

Is there anything else you want to add about mental health in general?

One thing I hear more often than anything else is that people get in situations where they're taking care of everybody else and they tend to neglect themselves. What I would encourage people to do is to really focus on being able to take care of yourself and do things that you know will help you to feel better. Because before you can take care of other responsibilities and other people, you really need to be able to take care of yourself.

Mental health has become so important in our country, and many would like assistance. Where should our readers start?

When people are having issues with things like loneliness, mood, and anxiety, a really good place to start is a primary care provider. They are trained to be able to manage aspects of behavioral and mental health, and they also have the ability to make referrals to other specialized care if needed. Primary care is the place where most people initially get their mental health care treatment.