Loneliness is Killing Us, But Love and Compassion Can Heal

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surgeon general

 

I was saddened when I read the headline on April 21 that Vivek H. Murthy was stepping down as Surgeon General at the request of the Trump administration. His leadership in bringing addictions to the forefront of public health has done the country a great service. I am deeply sorry he won’t be able to continue to champion these issues as Surgeon General, but I expect his advocacy is far from over.

In the meantime, he laid a path for all of us to follow, a mantle for all of us to pick up.

When I had the privilege of interviewing him onstage at #NatCon17 in what turned out to be one of his last public appearances as U.S. Surgeon General, I was struck not only by his vision and passion, but by his approachability, his humility and the deep regard with which he clearly holds his fellow citizens.

Dr. Murthy told me a uniquely American story. There are few other countries, he mused, in which the grandson of a poor farmer in India could grow up to become Surgeon General of the United States. He used his platform to make good on his grandfather’s admonition that, “We are responsible for each other.”

As he traveled the country, he found “people in pain across America”—not just physical pain, but deep emotional pain that is a manifestation of chronic stress. Poverty, discrimination and violence are negatively impacting people’s health, Dr. Murthy said. But so, too, are social isolation and loneliness.

Despite living in the “most technologically connected age in human development,” people in this country are isolated and alone. The percentage of Americans who report being lonely—40 percent—has doubled in a generation.

Dr. Murthy pointed to research that reveals lack of social connectedness is as much a risk for premature mortality as obesity and smoking. Chronic stress and lack of emotional wellbeing are root causes of substance use disorders and chronic illness in this country, he said.

We must address “diseases of despair driven by deficits of hope,” Dr. Murthy said. In this clip from our conversation, he speaks eloquently about the fact that while there is no single solution for these problems, there is a simple first step.

We must bring people together to build authentic relationships that are mutually beneficial. This is part of the culture change that Dr. Murthy believes will begin to turn the tide for people with substance use disorders in this country.

Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health was released last November with the goal of igniting meaningful conversation to address our nation’s addictions problem. It pointed out that 21 million Americans are struggling with addiction—one-and-a-half times the number who have all types of cancer combined. Yet only one in 10 people with addiction gets help. If so few people with cancer received treatment, “We would not tolerate it, and we should not tolerate it for substance use disorders,” Dr. Murthy said.

But reports don’t move the needle in public health, Dr. Murthy noted. That happens—as it did after publication of the Surgeon General’s report on smoking—when the entire community comes together. When medical providers receive training in addiction prevention and treatment; when faith leaders, employers and educators talk about addiction and when everyone understands that addiction is a disease, not a character flaw or moral failing—that’s when Americans will “step up and step out to extend a helping hand” to those in need.

In one of the most eloquent and gracious statements I have ever read, Dr. Murthy said his goodbyes on Facebook. I hope you will take a few moments to read the words of this truly remarkable man.

We will miss you, Dr. Murthy.

 

Linda Rosenberg

President and CEO, National Council for Behavioral Health