Lonely doesn’t always mean alone

In my laboratory at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, we have been investigating relationships of social support, social isolation, and loneliness to quantifiable health outcomes for people with multiple sclerosis (MS) — a clinical population at higher risk for isolation than the general population.

MS is a neurological disease that has its onset early in life (20’s and 30’s), and its symptoms often can’t be seen by others. Fatigue, depression, pain, numbness, memory problems, and anxiety are common but invisible symptoms of MS. Experiencing these on a daily basis can feel like a very solitary journey. One of my patients told me, “When people tell me I don’t look sick, I want to say, ‘And you don’t look stupid.”

What this highlights for me is that lonely can happen when we are alone, but it can also happen when we are surrounded by many. The coronavirus pandemic has thrust us all into a new world of physical separation for which we were never prepared. As social animals who live and move in herds, packs, and tribes, I worry that the psychological aftershock of these times will reverberate well beyond what statistical models and economic forecasts predict for the return to “normalcy.”

But this is not pessimistic; rather, it is cause for some optimism.

Never before have we had such heightened awareness of how intrinsically bound mental health is to physical health. I have long said that my greatest hope is to see psychological health given the same priority as overall health, not only on the individual level but on a societal and health policy level — and now I can’t help but feel that the universe has overshot in delivering my wish.

Out of solitude with solidarity

The days to come will likely reveal what’s already being referred to as the “next pandemic:” the mental health pandemic. But acknowledging our brain as both an organ of our body and the source of our mental health may help us all as we work our way back toward overall health. There are treatments for our brain just as there are for every other part of our body, treatments that are grounded in medical science. We all need to find compassion for ourselves and be willing to fix what’s broken by the most empirically supported treatments available. Failing to do so will just lead to more sickness, and we owe it to ourselves, our families, and our society to put on our own oxygen masks and work towards getting ourselves strong again.

The poet Philip Larkin said, “Loneliness clarifies.” Perhaps COVID-19 is an opportunity, a brief flicker in time, that we will reflect on someday as a moment when the world hushed, our lives slowed down, and loneliness brought with it some much-needed clarity. Until then, please keep safe, stay well, and perhaps take a moment to reach out to those around us who may be feeling lonely — we never know what impact even the smallest actions can have.

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