Ali Safawi: The young and the lonely

Thursday, February 8, 2018 - 6:06pm

“The barrier of loneliness: the palpable, desperate need of the human animal to be with his fellow man … up there is an enemy known as isolation” - Rod Serling.

The haunting nature of loneliness is vividly captured by Serling at the end of the very first episode of “The Twilight Zone,” in which a man finds himself trapped in a town with no people in it. While you and I will likely never experience such a frightening scenario, we can nonetheless realize the terror of such isolation.

In 2010, the Mental Health Foundation in the United Kingdom released their findings that loneliness, chiefly thought about as an issue for the elderly, was actually a greater burden for young people ages 18 to 34. According to the American College Health Association, 59.3 percent of students report feeling very lonely at any time in the past year. It is hard to wrap your head around the idea that people in the prime of their lives, a time full of family and friends, could be suffering from loneliness. Alas, to feelings of loneliness and isolation, age is not a number of consequence.

While we should not ignore the problem of loneliness in the elderly, it is equally important to recognize loneliness as a major mental health problem for young people that should be both discussed and addressed.

The link between loneliness and poor health outcomes is clear. Research in older adults shows that loneliness impairs health by elevating levels of stress hormones and inflammation which can, in turn, lead to chronic illnesses like heart disease and dementia. Writing in The New York Times, Dr. Dhruv Khullar of Harvard Medical School declared that “social isolation is a growing epidemic—one that’s increasingly recognized as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences.” Khullar also points out that isolation can make illnesses, such as opioid addiction, worse as well as being a potential cause of bad health. It is clear that loneliness and isolation are more than just unpleasant and the health consequences—both physical and mental—can be severe.

But why are young people lonely? To begin to understand this, one must learn the typology of isolation. In 1973, American sociologist Robert S. Weiss divided loneliness into social isolation and emotional isolation. Social isolation is what we typically associate with isolation, that is, a true lack of social connections. Emotional isolation is a much more insidious foe. Emotional isolation is the internal feeling of loneliness in spite of social connections, no matter how robust.

I definitely suffer from emotional isolation. I am not a recluse, I go out to parties and other social events. I have friends who I can confide in and who I enjoy spending time with. Yet, in those times when I am sitting on my couch, the hungry pangs of loneliness gnawing at my mind and soul, I feel like I have no one and that I am utterly alone. In the past year, these times of peak loneliness have gotten more and more frequent. Safe to say, it sucks.

Emotional isolation, in my view, has its roots in the culture we live in. While preexisting mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, obviously contribute to this imagined isolation, it is the social environment we navigate through on the daily that provides an ample medium for loneliness to flourish.

For example, social media, which should have ushered in a new era of connectedness, may actually be making us feel more isolated. Now, I happen to find Facebook very useful and am not one to attack social media as the bringer of doom to our generation. That being said, a study out of the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychology found that Facebook use is a predictor of declining happiness and that it undermines well-being.

The Achilles’ heel of social media is that it increases the quantity of social connection but not necessarily the quality. This is the case because social media reduces someone’s personality, thoughts and lived experiences into a caricature and encourages us to judge people based off of that simulacrum. Take Tinder, an app where we judge and are judged based off of some pictures and a bio where wit matters more than substance. Sure, the instant gratification of a Tinder match is addictive at first but after a while it makes me feel hollow.

Social media is just the tip of the iceberg that is our lonely culture. Those of us socialized as men are not really allowed spaces to foster real connections with other people. In media, male friendships are portrayed as fun but almost never as emotionally supportive. And while Valentine’s Day is a frivolous Hallmark holiday, it is still a reminder that romantic relationships are the quintessential social connection in our society. Platonic love, a beautiful thing in its own right, is presented as inferior to romantic love. This is problematic because it prevents us from realizing that, even if we are single, that we are not alone. I am consistently surprised by how many people I am connected with where we mutually care about each other, all I have to do is reach out.

Last May, The Washington Post ran an article titled, “Senior loneliness is a disease that can and should be treated.” I would very much like to see similar attention paid to loneliness in young people because loneliness hurts, no matter the age.

I empathize wholeheartedly with my fellow college students who are struggling with loneliness. I know there is light at the end of the tunnel and we will reach that light with our heads held high. We are stronger than the enemy known as isolation.

 

Ali Safawi can be reached at asafawi@umich.edu