Let me first make it sharply clear that my intention in this piece or any of my writing is never to downplay or minimize unfathomable suffering happening physically, economically, socially and emotionally all over the world right now. If it ever appears that I am and you want to reach out/comment in a non-troll/non-hater way to discuss, I’m open for dialogue. Blanket statements don’t excuse insensitivity and impact matters just as much as intention.
Because of that, the first thing I want to address is the reality that what we are being required to do and what many are rightly electing to do for their own health—that is, social distance, isolate and quarantine—are exacerbating the felt sense of loneliness that was an epidemic long before the present crisis. This is not in any way to discourage or challenge the CDCs recommendations as I am not a doctor and am offering philosophical commentary, not prescriptions or directions.
At the same time, we need to acknowledge that social isolation and loneliness are two independent risk factors for premature mortality. Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis that combines data gathered by studying over 3.4 million participants over a period of years (as opposed to weeks or months) that found loneliness was associated with earlier death by 26%, social isolation by 29%, and living alone by 32%. Social connection is a protective factor, reducing the risk of mortality by 50%.
So we’ve got data that demonstrates social connection, a thing we can’t do in the ways we’re used to doing, is a major health-protective factor. Social connection is most potent when in-person gatherings are possible; people cannot, for example, co-regulate nervous systems over video chat. And yet, the fact that increasing rates of loneliness had been reported in the media for years before mass social distancing was enacted means that it takes either something more or something different to assuage the felt sense of loneliness.
Partly, it’s the toxic positivity I wrote about last month. Expecting people to be positive all the time and labeling them “toxic” if they’re not alienates people from others because they do not feel they can be true to their emotions while also being accepted by others. If you can only belong when you’re being positive, you either have to pretend to be someone else to fit in or you bear the lethal burden of isolation.
Again, the distinction is between positivity, which I have found to be very helpful in times of extreme stress, and toxic positivity, which polices people’s words and tones, barring anything other than positivity. Humans need belonging and acceptance they do not have to earn even, or especially, when they are distressed and experiencing so-called “negative” emotions. Positivity that is toxic is a rug under which authenticity is swiftly swept; positivity that is toxin-free can be a blanket.
Partly, the burgeoning loneliness epidemic stems from how difficult it is to survive in modern times. Before the pandemic and resultant economic shutdown, many people had no time for friends because they had to cobble together a living from eight side hustles and a main gig, none of which provide sufficient healthcare coverage, sick leave or retirement support or pay enough in themselves for people to survive on less.
The people that do have time for friends struggle to find them because of how deeply the lie that humans are naturally competitive has been embedded into our psyches. This lie festers in us, repeated by mainstream cultural norms and institutions, and produces mistrust, second-guessing and a felt need to always hedge one’s relational bets. This is not to just to blame “others” and point the finger ever outward: we all live at this noxious nexus of capitalism and individualism, which rely on each other to survive and grow.
Over half of Americans literally had less than nothing before the COVID crisis—about 110 million Americans carried credit card debt; according to a 2019 report from Experian, that’s about $6k per person. Classifying that debt into “student, mortgage, medical, consumer” is really only useful in exposing the biases of our system. Notice how harshly we judge those who have credit card debt vs. student debt, as if the current education system is providing the value it’s gouging from students. Notice what we think of credit card debt: clearly, it’s because you’re lazy, materialistic or need more self-control. Medical debt simultaneously garners pity (which is patronizing and dehumanizing) and elicits all the ableism lurking in people’s unawareness. Almost a quarter of America’s population, according to CNBC around this time last year, report that the reason for most of their debt is paying for basic living necessities.
This means that people are going into debt to stay alive and housed. It’s not that one-fourth of Americans are lazy—it’s a lot of work to be poor in this country. People, including myself, have been very frustrated by the “busy is the new fine” culture we have, but there’s a reason the labor movement fought for free time. Humans need to rest, but they also need to be together in a self-determined way that does not involve performing cog-like tasks they have no interest in for someone whose goal is to value their life only as much as necessary to keep them working.
While I still believe humans are not totally victims of their own schedule, there are many people whose life circumstances don’t allow them the time flexibility that those with material and social resources have. When increasing work hours is the only way you’ll eat that week, forgoing the movie discussion group your friends planned on a Saturday “so everyone can join” (except those “essential workers who are ringing people up at groceries stores 16 hours a weekend) isn’t just “blowing people off” socially.
Loneliness is on the rise because our society makes us choose between survival and socializing, even though, neurologically, biologically, mental-health wise, they cannot actually be separated. Our culture has even trivialized the word “socializing.” The word is used to belittle activities one disapproves of (and it’s usually about or directed at women, which is just one more piece of evidence that anything not male is less valued than anything male). If you want to rank an activity lower than work, productivity, contribution, “creating value,” etc., slap a “socializing” label on it. The only remotely positive use of the word is when it is deployed to indicate a time of resting and relaxing. At no point in our culture that I’m aware of do we use the word socializing to evoke a sense of necessity or imperative.
Partly, our culture is exploding with loneliness because so many of us, whether we know it or not or like it or not, are still under the power of the DSM. Our mainstream culture believes in the hierarchy implied by terms like “mental illness”—we need to believe there is such a thing, that some are worse than others and that they cannot be cured because they give us answers to the horrific conditions many of us are already living in (or will be soon, which we feel and see more starkly every day, especially during COVID).
More accurately, capitalism needs us to believe that the unspeakable violence, the terrifying poverty and the deep alienation and resultant roiling anxiety we all on some level feel are the result of bad actors: people whose brains randomly broke one day and are thus now Sick and Other. Rather than improve conditions and eradicate the mass suffering their system relies on to keep going, though they are abundantly able and well-endowed to do so, those that run this capitalist/individualist/mental illness show would rather us believe that there’s sadly nothing we can do to permanently fix our problems.
But! At least we have an enemy we can all get behind! Mass murder? Definitely caused by mental illness, not raging hopelessness, patriarchy-fueled entitlement, and superiority, or a culture that equates love and belonging with impossible levels of achievement and productivity. Poverty? Definitely caused by bad choices, personal laziness, and unwillingness to work hard and pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, not an utter lack of affordable boots or that you don’t own whatever bootstraps you may have. Unaffordable boots? Definitely caused by mysteriously constant lack of funding because all resources must be diverted to fortifying our country against all those external bad guys who are so jealous of our freedoms and our lifestyle that they can’t contain themselves. And how convenient that such a system also provides a lifelong supply of profit for those pulling the strings, the bootstraps, shall we say, of this massive operation.
The mechanism through which capitalism profits from individualism is called psychiatry. If we didn’t have psychiatry, there would be no way to propagate or enforce this bizarre idea of “normal.” There would be no standards to keep changing, raising, making impossible to meet and then financially gouging people for trying to deal with how shitty they feel for not meeting them. There would be no basis for labeling, let alone punishing, behaviors that people in power can’t profit from. If we didn’t have psychiatry, maybe people could get some real help, but the reliance on psychiatry goes so deep that people even shame each other for being lonely.
It’s a cultural ritual and it itself is contributing to the loneliness epidemic. You can be sure that a culture is emotionally abusive when it shames people for stating that they’re lonely. If you’re shamed for being lonely, how motivated do you think you’ll be to reach out and try to connect with others? I, for one, have an easier time telling someone I’m broke than I do admitting I’m lonely. The shame comes from this assumption that, if you’re lonely, if you don’t have people you belong with, something’s wrong with you.
This is deeply gaslighting, since it’s actually not your fault that our culture doesn’t allow people the time it takes to find, develop and nourish the kinds of relationships we all need, nor does it acknowledge that, in reality, forming lasting, meaningful friendships as an adult is hard. Part of what utopia would look like for me is being able to walk up to another adult, kindergartner-style, and say “let’s be friends.” And, actually, I would like to acknowledge and deeply thank the people who have done nearly this very thing after reading one of my articles. Reaching out and saying “want to be friends?” is an astoundingly brave thing to do in this culture, in large part because of the internalized shame we who are lonely (I have a suspicion it’s all of us, on some level) all carry about our loneliness.
Why do people shame others for expressing that they’re lonely? It may sometimes be to cover up their own sense of loneliness and concern that not having close relationships means something hideous and unfixable about them.
Going deeper, shaming people for expressing loneliness might come from the pervasive productivity mindset everyone from postal-service workers to computer programmers to stay-at-home-mothers (who are, I need to point out, working just as damn hard as anyone; the only reason the culture tells us they don’t is because they do it for free) has. We are so saturated with messages that we need to “create value.” We are so inundated with messages, explicit and otherwise, that our worth, our validity as a human, is tied to how well we do in the game of capitalism. Indeed, “failing” at capitalism means starvation, homelessness, and the ex-communication from humanity that goes along with it.
And yet, I said that I would much rather tell someone I’m broke than I’m lonely. Neither the tone-deaf advice of “just get new friends” nor the victim-blaming narrative of “just go get a job/better job” are true or helpful. Yet somehow, it feels easier for me to ask for help learning how to make more money than it does learning how to make more friends. This kind of sickens me because it shows just how deep the tenets of capitalism, individualism, and what they dictate should be valued have warped my perspective.
COVID made the pre-existing condition of needing money to survive glaringly obvious, though it was so for more and more people already. COVID has even made it obvious that the precious-sounding axiom “we need each other” is quite literal. It’s still hard to be taken seriously when saying “we need each other,” though. But I neither mean it as a cute little nursery rhyme nor will I accept the shame people get for being sincere and earnest. We need each other, and I am deadly serious.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.