By Mental Health First Aid

Social isolation and loneliness were a growing concern well before the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, in a 2017 report from the Harvard Business Review, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy stated that America was experiencing a loneliness epidemic. This epidemic stems, in part, from being more technologically connected than ever before, which allows people to be more geographically mobile and live apart from friends and family.

Exacerbating the loneliness epidemic, more than two years of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders resulting from the pandemic have also left many people reeling from symptoms of social anxiety. According to Mental Health America, 72% of respondents to a screening questionnaire in 2021 claimed that loneliness has become one of the top three stressors in their life and the top factor contributing to feelings of anxiety and depression. This is concerning, as a 2022 national survey by The Harris Poll conducted on behalf of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing found that a staggering 43% of U.S. adults who say they needed mental health care in the past 12 months did not receive that care.

Although everyone experiences loneliness at times, if it starts to impact someone’s ability to carry on with their regular activities or lasts longer than average for the person, it could be a sign of something more serious, like depression, which may require professional treatment.

By listening and showing empathy, you can help someone in need access care and support during a difficult time. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), an awareness and education training administered by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, teaches individuals how to recognize and respond to signs and symptoms that indicate someone may be experiencing a mental health or a substance use challenge, and guide them to appropriate care before it becomes a crisis. The training equips people with the information and resources to address common mental health concerns, reduce stigma and encourage self-care strategies for positive mental wellbeing.

MHFA also gives you a 5-step Action Plan (ALGEE) so you know what to do and can help support friends, loved ones and community members who may be experiencing social isolation or loneliness. The Action Plan’s steps can be used in any order:

AApproach, assess for risk of suicide or harm. Identify if the person’s feelings of loneliness are causing suicidal or harmful thoughts. If the person is in immediate danger, call 911.

A common misconception is that asking someone about suicide will “put the thought in their head.” This is actually not true. In fact, asking the person directly, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” will give them the chance to talk about their problems and reassure them that someone cares.

L Listen non-judgmentally.  Ask them how they are feeling and how long they have been feeling that way. Listen attentively and show that you care.

Most people experiencing distressing emotions and thoughts want to be heard before being offered helpful options and resources. During this step, it is important to set aside any judgements about the person and their situation, and to respect the person’s culture.

GGive reassurance and information. Reassure them that it is okay, even common, to experience loneliness, especially after COVID-19 and lockdowns. Remind them that help is available, and that you will hold space for them. You can also offer to provide information about mental health challenges. Empathize with how the person is feeling and be a voice of hope.

E Encourage appropriate professional help. Offer to help them find professional support such as a therapist or psychiatrist, relevant support group, or primary care physician. You can even offer to accompany them to appointments if it makes them more comfortable.

EEncourage self-help and other support strategies. Self-help strategies and reaching out to family, friends and community members can help us manage feelings of loneliness. A mix of physical and mental self-care strategies is key. A few examples of self-care include journaling, getting enough sleep, practicing a form of exercise you enjoy, meditating or developing a hobby.

While feelings of social isolation and loneliness can often be overwhelming, focusing on self-care and leaning on your loved ones for support can serve as important protective factors and help make your recovery journey easier.

You can also become a much-needed resource to your loved ones and whole community by getting trained in Mental Health First Aid and joining the more than 2.6 million certified First Aiders nationwide. Sign up for a training today!