Humans are a fundamentally social species. This is a well-known fact. A lesser-known fact is that it can be fatal for humans to be alone.
Social isolation is becoming a leading cause of early mortality. Due to increased individualism and an ageing population, more people than ever feel involuntarily isolated. This leads to anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and addiction, to name a few. We tend to focus on individual accomplishments rather than what we achieve as a group or society. This tendency puts pressure on us, and has led to many boys and girls being diagnosed with what is known in Norway as the “good girl syndrome.” It is what we call it when someone strains themselves too hard in the pursuit of perfection.
Amongst those of us who have retired, one in eight says that they are lonely and have no friends or family. This number is higher for those with physical disabilities, and even more so for those struggling with their mental health. Social isolation is dangerous, we know this, and it's too prevalent and expensive for us to keep brushing it under the carpet.
Social isolation, more commonly known as loneliness, can be defined as lacking a sense of community or belonging. It can be with regards to friends, family, or a group; experienced as an involuntary sense of being on the outside. Professor and loneliness expert John Cacioppo recently revealed that involuntary social isolation affects mortality four times more than obesity, and it is much more prevalent. In one of his experiments, an isolated mouse developed a stroke three times worse than that of a social mouse, even though the mouse was genetically identical, and the induced stroke was the same. There is a reason to believe that the same goes for humans. A research report from 2010 shows that perceived social isolation is as dangerous as smoking a packet of cigarettes a day, or even alcohol abuse. In addition to this, social isolation is closely linked to mental illnesses like stress, depression, paranoia, addiction, anxiety, cognitive decline, and suicide, and the groups most exposed are usually already in vulnerable situations.
The Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training can tell us that between 10–30 percent of children in lower education regularly perceive themselves as socially isolated compared to their peers. The effects of this include “weakened development of identity and low self-esteem,” as well as an aversion to attending school, and some will drop out of school as a result. The Directorate also underlines that the stigma surrounding social isolation means the numbers are probably considerably higher. A group of Canadian scientists looked closely at the social health of young people with disabilities and found that 53 percent of them had no friends. Not one. Only one percent said they spent an hour with friends every day. What surprised the researchers most was that the kids said that their disability was not nearly as bad as the isolation that came with it. When experiencing isolation, the brain reacts as if it is exposed to a threat. The pulse increases and “fight or flight” adrenaline kicks in. This leads to high blood pressure, frayed nerves, and poor sleep. It's normal for socially isolated people to have a bad temper, be angry, shy, have mood swings, and have poor social skills – there is an apparent vicious circle here.
There are already some measures to combat involuntary social isolation. Alder.no is a service for isolated seniors in Norway, where people can sign up to the website to offer companionship, help with practical tasks, etc. KOMP enables communication across all generations, allowing people to share messages, pictures and make video calls to their grandparents. Loneliness amongst seniors is quite often discussed, which is crucial. However, we ought not to forget the individuals who are isolated early on in life. When we are kids, we develop social skills, strong ties with each other, and stable relationships.
Children who are isolated due to illness, or otherwise, need to be integrated back into society quickly. Our way of contributing to this is by providing the tools needed to stay in touch, even when not physically present. AV1 is merely a stepping stone on the long path of combating social isolation, and we urge society to give this significant problem the attention it deserves.
It is obvious that as social beings, belonging and community have positive effects on our health. It should, therefore, be just as obvious that isolation, and a lack of belonging, can have a significant negative effect.