Loneliness has been declared a health emergency in San Mateo County, situated in the bustling San Francisco Bay Area and encompassing a portion of Silicon Valley.
The county’s Board of Supervisors recently took action by passing a resolution on Tuesday. This resolution acknowledges the significance of loneliness as a public health crisis and demonstrates a commitment to finding ways to foster social connection within the community.
This declaration is a significant milestone, as it marks the first time a county in the U.S. has taken such action.
According to David Canepa, the Board of Supervisors’ vice president who introduced the legislation, the resolution does not allocate funds for programs to reduce loneliness. Instead, it demonstrates the county’s dedication to tackling the issue and acknowledges the experiences of residents.
Our goal is to reach out to individuals who may be feeling isolated and let them know that they are not alone. We’re here for you. “And going forward, here are some actions we can take to assist you,” he stated.
According to Canepa, the decision to implement this measure was influenced by similar initiatives in the U.K. and Japan, where dedicated ministers have been appointed to tackle the issue of loneliness. In addition to conversations with his staff and an advisory from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in May, he was influenced by the connections between loneliness and smoking and diabetes. This prompted him to prioritize strategies that promote social connection.
In a post on X, Murthy expressed his gratitude to San Mateo for taking the lead.
In a recent Gallup poll conducted in February 2023, it was found that approximately 17% of adults in the United States reported feeling lonely the day before. According to Canepa, the rate in San Mateo is higher. He referred to a county-led survey conducted in 2022, which is the latest data available. The survey revealed that 45% of residents were experiencing challenges with loneliness and isolation.
Extensive research has highlighted the significant health risks that come with feeling lonely, such as a higher likelihood of developing dementia, depression, anxiety, heart disease, and stroke.
A study conducted in November revealed that individuals residing alone in the U.K., without regular visits from friends or family, faced a 39% higher risk of premature death compared to those who received daily visits from their loved ones. A study published in 2010, on the other hand, discovered that social relationships played a more significant role in determining the risk of death compared to obesity.
Compared to white individuals, Black individuals are at a greater risk of experiencing premature death due to social isolation. Elderly individuals are more susceptible to feelings of isolation due to factors such as living alone or dealing with chronic illnesses that restrict their mobility and confine them to their homes.
According to Canepa, San Mateo has a significant number of older residents who experienced heightened isolation during the pandemic. The population of individuals aged 65 and above in the county exceeds 18%, which is higher than the average of 16% in the state.
“It’s a challenging time for older adults at the moment,” remarked Jennifer Steele, the CEO of Meals on Wheels San Francisco, an organization dedicated to providing hot meals to seniors in northern San Mateo County.
“People no longer live in close proximity to their loved ones,” she remarked. At times, individuals may find themselves having outlived their dear ones. After retirement, your social circle tends to become smaller. Making friends can be quite challenging for many individuals.
According to the organization, approximately 45% of the seniors served by Meals on Wheels in northern San Mateo live alone.
“We are often the only individuals they may encounter in a week,” Steele mentioned. “It’s a challenging situation for many of the individuals we assist.”
Canepa expressed concern about the issue of loneliness among teenagers and young adults in San Mateo for two specific reasons. It has been found through research that individuals who frequently engage in social media usage may experience heightened feelings of loneliness. Additionally, the high-achieving atmosphere in Silicon Valley can potentially cause stress among teenagers.
Stanford is located in Palo Alto, right near our county line. We have a multitude of educational institutions available. People are feeling overwhelmed by the task of completing their college recommendation. Oh, my goodness, which school will accept me? He expressed concern about the immense pressure faced by today’s youth.
Canepa expressed his enthusiasm for enhancing social connections in San Mateo. He has a number of ideas, such as improving infrastructure to create more walkable neighborhoods and collaborating with social media platforms like Meta, which is headquartered there. The goal is to motivate residents to engage in outdoor activities and participate in community meetups. Additionally, on Tuesday, he penned a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, urging the appointment of a state-designated individual to address the issue of loneliness.
According to Canepa, there is potential for a county fund to be supported by sales tax in order to provide financial assistance for these initiatives. The fund dedicates $47 million each year to support new community initiatives, with a significant portion of around $10 million specifically allocated for mental health initiatives. Canepa’s office is currently accepting proposals from organizations that align with the specified categories.
According to David Sbarra, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona, accurately determining what can alleviate loneliness is a challenging task. According to the scientist, although there is a good understanding of the effects of loneliness, there is still a lack of knowledge regarding all the factors that contribute to it.
Sbarra pointed out that addressing loneliness solely as a mental health concern may overlook the broader societal factors that can hinder socialization. According to him, individuals who have to juggle two jobs often find themselves with limited time to spend with loved ones or friends.
“Increasing the minimum wage at the local government level could potentially have a greater impact on alleviating loneliness than encouraging individuals to reevaluate challenging experiences,” stated Sbarra.
Murthy’s advisory provided a comprehensive list of strategies aimed at promoting socialization. One example of policy measures includes the implementation of accessible public transportation and paid family leave, which aim to facilitate quality time spent among individuals. Another important aspect is investing in community spaces such as parks, libraries, and playgrounds. Health care providers may consider inquiring about the emotional well-being of the patients they encounter, including their feelings of loneliness.
However, Sbarra mentioned that there is still ongoing discussion regarding whether loneliness is widespread in the U.S., as Murthy has claimed. According to the Gallup poll, there has been a decrease in adult loneliness since 2020 and early 2021. Sbarra mentioned that individuals might experience a decrease in feelings of loneliness as they readjust to social activities after the pandemic.
However, he emphasized the significance of governments recognizing socialization as a crucial public health concern.
“Considering the significance of your relationships for your well-being, just like you prioritize physical activity, diet, and sleep, is the main message,” he stated.