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UN Declares Loneliness A Global Health Crisis – Why It Matters


The heartbeat of hustle culture pulsates through the veins of today’s jet-setting 21st century, where getting caught in the hamster wheel of productivity and accumulation of achievements is inevitable.

However, for all the notions of ‘winning the rat race,’ ‘acing life,’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ it represents it comes at an expense.

Often, in the form of hyper-optimizing our behaviours for career and workplace success to an extent where revealing our true, vulnerable, authentic selves becomes an arduous exercise the very ingredient that goes into establishing robust social connections that scratch the surface.

Amidst the duel between the demands of hustle culture and its pervasive intrusions within the lengths and breadths of personal connections, the World Health Organization (WHO) catalyzed a crucial response to this contemporary phenomenon in November 2023 by declaring loneliness a public health concern.

The WHO Commission on Social Connection has also been formed, prioritising loneliness on the global health agenda and bolstering it with public fund allocation. This effort aims at researching and building scalable, evidence-based interventions customized to diverse community and individual needs across the globe.

Chaired by US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy and African Union Youth Envoy Chido Mpemba, this UN-appointed commission is expected to operate for a duration of three years.  

The invisible pandemic of loneliness has been gaining momentum all the while with binge-watch marathons replacing dinner table conversations video game all-nighters replacing field soccer play matches virtual educative courses replacing group DIY sessions.

The popular opinion that loneliness is striking a blow exclusively on the older demographic segment serves as a tunnel vision of this far-reaching global crisis.

Loneliness is a universal human experience that involves an interplay of diverse nuances and subjective factors.

But here’s the thing — it is a term that is often skewed to fit into stereotypical narratives, unable to capture the fundamental substance that lies at the heart of it — the all-consuming emotional distress that emerges from a lack of connection in interpersonal relationships, resulting in feelings of alienation and distance in a social setup.

Feminine undertones, tinged with elements of ageism, are attached to loneliness, especially in South Asian collectivistic cultures.

For instance, Indian mainstream media is replete with representations of a woman, once freed from the daily drill of her wifely or motherly duties, yearning for a glance from her better half, who is always consumed in tasks deemed rational or manly.

A tea-time catch up with her girl pals or a snippet of gossip time with the neighbour who lives next door is portrayed as outlets for filling that empty void. This fuels the overarching rationale that womanhood attains its triumph in the presence of attention, validation, and the nurturance of interpersonal relationships — whether from her kith and kin or her pool of close allies.

Look at the other end of the spectrum — loneliness in males is a raging peril muffled inside the quicksands of toxic masculine norms.

The traditional masculine code of conduct — encoded into the male mind and behaviour through socialisation in early childhood and perpetuating throughout successive development stages — is steeped in the suppression of emotions, glorification of toughness, and interpersonal relations that lack a predisposition to venting deep feelings and sensitivity.

In the backdrop of this rigorous social conditioning, loneliness gets consumed inside the subliminal realms of the male psyche.

Current research weaves together the fabric of this overlooked peril — a meager 27 per cent of men stated having up to six close friends, and about 15 per cent of men reported having no close friends at all — a 500 per cent spike since 1990 — about one third of men experience chronic loneliness in their lifetime.

In the words of the American Psychological Association (APA), loneliness is defined as ‘affective and cognitive discomfort or uneasiness from being or perceiving oneself to be alone or otherwise solitary.’

It is often assumed to be an emotional peril reserved for individuals who have climbed up the bottom rungs of physical and physiological fulfilments in the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs — and possess the privilege to contemplate the emptiness of the soul — not a concern that someone who lives a hand-to-mouth existence or anyone belonging to the lower socio-economic strata is a testament to.

However, this assumption is flawed on many levels — loneliness is found to be highly prevalent in societies with rampant systemic inequities, poverty, and political instability.

The mass displacement of Ukrainians from their land due to the Russian invasion under Putin’s hegemony — about six million of them who have found refugee in various regions of the European continent – faces a tough battle, requiring them to forego the need for cultural interconnectedness, familial togetherness, and geographical belongingness for the sake of safety.

In Africa, where poverty is a dominant concern, with about 46 per cent of the population living on less than 1.90 U.S. dollars per day — approximately 40 per cent of African respondents reported feeling lonely on the often/always/some of the times scale in 2021.

While the focus on virus prevention pushed the chronic wave of loneliness to the sidelines – going unnoticed in the Covid-19 abyss of remote work, virtual learning, and increased social media usage, with over 33 per cent people grappling with this concern worldwide in 2021 it is worthwhile to mention that the coronavirus pandemic accentuated the issue of loneliness that lived and breathed in the collective social landscape prior to its onset.

In the pre-pandemic year of 2018, Gen Zs, millennials, gen X, and boomers had loneliness scores of 48.3, 45.3, 45.1, and 42.4 respectively in the U.S.

The echoes of loneliness are not confined within the four walls of a house. It comes wrapped with productivity costs as well – posing repercussions such as impaired job performance, a spike in employee absenteeism, high employee turnover rates, roadblocks to innovation, creativity, and optimal collaboration in the workplace, along with an acceleration of stress and anxiety.

With all said and done, the United Nation’s recognition of loneliness as a public health concern, considered deserving of significant investment and a rigorous, pan-global investigation, stands as a vivid brushstroke on the evolving canvas of global mental health awareness.

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