Today is a landmark moment. It positions social connectedness as a global public health priority. The launch of the WHO Commission on Social Connectedness marks the beginning of a three-year global effort to mobilize awareness, action and much-needed support for solutions to tackle social isolation and loneliness. I am.
I feel lucky to have a support system as I am surrounded by friends, family, colleagues and community. However, too many people do not have strong social connections. As a result, they and their health suffer.
Teenagers who are connected to social media but feel disconnected from society, young mothers who struggle to find their place among their peers, people with disabilities who are held back by lack of access. A grandfather who feels lonely after the death of his worker and partner. Social isolation and loneliness can affect anyone, anywhere.
Three drivers have encouraged WHO to strengthen our actions and ambitions on social connectivity. The scale of the problem, the severity of its impact, and the existence of promising solutions. Our recent shared experience with the COVID-19 pandemic has further demonstrated how important connection is and how unsettling isolation can be.
Social isolation and loneliness are prevalent across the life course and across all regions. The perception that this is a “soft” problem, affecting only a few older people in high-income countries, is incorrect. Both young and old people are affected. Research shows that 25% of older adults and 5-15% of adolescents worldwide experience social isolation and loneliness at similar rates across regions.
And the results are shocking. A lack of social connection has a serious impact on physical and mental health, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, depression, anxiety, and suicide. People who lack social connections have a 30% higher risk of dying prematurely, comparable to well-known risks such as smoking, excessive drinking, and obesity.
There is power in connection. In recent years, there has been an explosion of interventions aimed at alleviating social isolation and loneliness, from the individual to the societal level. From individual therapy and community-based ‘friend-making’ services to online skills training and government policymaking, social connections are receiving increasing attention.
We know that social isolation and loneliness are serious problems, and we know that it has serious health implications, but as a global community we need to know how best to address it. I’m not sure what really works. The WHO Committee on Social Connectivity was established to answer that question. Identifying effective social connectivity solutions and organizing policy and funding to scale up these solutions.
Co-chaired by Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General, and Chido Mpemba, African Union Youth Envoy, and with nine distinguished policymakers, thought leaders, and advocates as members, I am pleased that the Commission Optimistic and excited about what can be achieved. Ultimately, reducing social isolation and loneliness is the job of all of us, so over the next three years, the Commission will work with partners, innovators, funders and, importantly, to reduce social isolation and loneliness. We will work hard to ensure that people who have first-hand experience can contribute.
The scale and severity of social isolation and loneliness is a challenge, but also an opportunity. This is your chance to rethink and redefine how you connect with those around you. I hope the Commission will be a catalyst for this change. Healthier lives, stronger relationships, and more resilient communities.