Current global estimates suggest that 1 in 4 older adults experience social isolation, and 5 to 15 percent of adolescents experience loneliness. Weak social connections cause a higher risk of early death; these are also linked to anxiety, depression, suicide, dementia, and the increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Weak social connections represent an equivalent health risk to smoking and obesity.

While many consider this rise in loneliness to be largely a social problem, communities around the world are applying innovative public health approaches to connecting people not only to each other but to health professionals and systems that can provide much-needed support.

Here are several tenets of public health and how they are playing out addressing social isolation and loneliness across the globe.

If you were fighting an epidemic, which some consider social isolation to be, you would likely start by going to the source and from there find places with high rates of spread.

Social isolation among certain groups, most notably the elderly, people with health problems, or people with disabilities is well documented. But social isolation is an issue that can impact anyone and there is a need to both create awareness and offer preventative solutions.

For example, during the Covid pandemic younger people reported significantly higher levels of social isolation and loneliness; we don’t know yet whether these levels were transitory or not. But we must confront the fact that loneliness in youth is widespread and damaging. Listening to young people talk about their experience of loneliness is a vital step. For example, in Japan, Ibasho Chat is a free, anonymous 24/7 text-based internet helpline for young people looking for connection and support. In the United Kingdom, the Lonely not Alone campaign, led by the Co-op Foundation, systematically recruited, listened to, and publicized the voices of younger people talking about their loneliness. And Loneliness Awareness Week 2023 in Australia generated calls to action for more research, normalizing discussion about the issue, empowering communities to address weak social connections, and establishing a peak body, a national leadership organization to spearhead change.

More broadly, Canada’s GenWell Weekends, funded by private donors and corporate sponsors, aim to encourage social connections in a celebratory and preventative way. Canadians sign up to a weekend and choose an activity, from apple picking to sporting events. These catalytic occasions at points in the year when there is a greater risk of loneliness give Canadians “the excuse, reminder or permission” to connect with others. The ensuing Canadian Talk to a Stranger Week led by the GenWell Project draws on compelling evidence being that reaching out helps us to feel better and more motivated.

Public health campaigns like Loneliness Awareness Weeks in different countries, the Great Get-Together, and the Big Lunch in England are boosters for social connection, but they are not sufficient. The effort needs sustaining. For example, Australia moved from an annual call to action, Neighbour Day to Neighbours Every Day, encouraging the one-off impulse to become how we live every day.

Read the full article about social isolation by Paul Cann at Stanford Social Innovation Review.