Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Courage of Connection: Coming Full Circle

A new report from the Surgeon General highlights the need for human connection.

Key points

  • Loneliness and isolation are tied to depression and anxiety.
  • Lack of social connection increases the risk of premature death by more than 60 percent.
  • Frequently confiding in others is associated with up to 15 percent reduced odds of developing depression.

In the days before becoming a father, before I was in medical school or training, before even considering becoming a psychiatrist, I had the unique opportunity in graduate school to befriend a small, diverse group of idealists. We met regularly over delicious meals, told stories and jokes, and shared personal milestones. But, mostly, we contemplated how we would change the world and improve lives through economic, health, and educational means.

After graduation, we all went our separate ways, but each of us made good on our promises in one form or another. Today, some lead nonprofits, others advance public health policy or educational programs, while others are environmentalists or physicians. One of us, however, became the current Surgeon General of the United States. For years Vivek Murthy has championed efforts to identify and reduce the impact of loneliness. His efforts to increase social connection continue to influence millions, including me. In fact, it is why this blog is named “The Courage of Connection.”

In addition to raising awareness and promoting policies to stem our country’s rising mental health crisis, in his role as U.S. Surgeon General, Murthy just released a comprehensive advisory report on the epidemic of isolation and loneliness.

Loneliness and isolation can often be overlooked as “less important” mental health conditions, but the Surgeon General's Advisory shares some data points that highlight just how connected loneliness and isolation are to our overall health,

The physical health consequences of poor or insufficient connection include a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease, a 32 percent increased risk of stroke, and a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Additionally, lacking social connection increases risk of premature death by more than 60 percent.

Many of us felt the effects of isolation and loneliness during the COVID pandemic on a personal level, unable to see friends and family like we had been accustomed to doing all of our lives. However, reading these hard statistics from such a respected source as the Surgeon General solidifies just how seriously we need to be in our efforts to reduce loneliness if we want to improve our mental and physical health.

So with this in mind, what does this new report say about the physical, emotional, and cognitive impacts of isolation and loneliness?

A review of 63 studies concluded that loneliness and social isolation among children and adolescents increase the risk of depression and anxiety and that this risk remained high even up to nine years later.

  • Lack of social connection contributes to suicide.

While many factors may contribute to suicide, more than a century of research has demonstrated significant links between a lack of social connection and death by suicide.

  • Social connection can protect against depression.

Importantly, social connection also seems to protect against depression even in people with a higher probability of developing the condition. For example, frequently confiding in others is associated with up to 15 percent reduced odds of developing depression among people who are already at higher risk due to their history of traumatic or otherwise adverse life experiences.

When reading through the report, the first question that comes to my mind as a parent and then as a psychiatrist is, “What are the solutions to prevent this from happening?” And what can we do as professionals, parents, and community members to ensure our kids, family, neighbors, and ourselves don’t feel these alarming effects of loneliness and depression? The Surgeon General’s report lists six foundational pillars:

  1. Strengthen social infrastructure: As the report states, this can be done by designing environments and programs in our communities that promote connection, including parks, libraries, and playgrounds, and then utilizing these places.
  2. Enact pro-connection public policies: As citizens, we can proactively ask national, state, and local governments to support connections among a community or a family, such as public transportation or paid family leave.
  3. Mobilize the health sector: In order to assess patients for risk of loneliness, we need to more actively mobilize the health sector to intervene and help prevent several major health conditions and premature death that are caused in large part due to isolation.
  4. Reform digital environments: As I’ve written about before, we need to evaluate and ensure our interaction with digital technology does not detract from meaningful and healing connections with others. Social media can often make us feel even more alone, and we need to be mindful of its negative effects on our state of mind.
  5. Deepen our knowledge: This can be done by furthering our understanding of the causes and consequences of social disconnection and what efforts can effectively boost connection. Just by reading this article and being interested in the topic, you have already made an effort to stop the negative effects of loneliness and isolation in your life and the lives of those around you.
  6. Cultivate a culture of connection: Through highly meaningful yet informal everyday life practices, we must be mindful of cultivating a culture of connection whenever possible. Reaching out and checking in on a friend or family member builds and strengthens those connections and decreases loneliness.

With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, this report could not have come at a better time. Now that we better understand the risk factors for our growing mental health crisis, the report urges us all to take action and promote social connectedness.

After reading this report, I feel a sense of joy and urgency. On the one hand, I am elated that, as a country, we formally declare and address isolation and the impact loneliness has on our physical and mental health. Tackling it is critical to our overall well-being. On the other hand, I feel a tremendous sense of urgency and responsibility. Being in a position of influence to do something about it, I promise to you all that I will continue to promote and improve health and wellness through one connection at a time. Please join me, and let’s all do our part to reconnect.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community (…)

More from Douglas Newton M.D., M.P.H.
More from Psychology Today
More from Douglas Newton M.D., M.P.H.
More from Psychology Today