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Rising Mental Health and Substance Abuse Issues Linked to Loneliness

Loneliness is not a diagnosable condition. Yet, research has shown that it has the same impact on death rates as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

You can feel alone on a crowded elevator or standing in line at the post office. Loneliness is a person’s satisfaction with the level of connection they desire versus the reality of what they have or don’t.

Americans feel more alone now than ever before. This seclusion is a powerful force that impairs many parts of our lives. It can be as harmful as obesity, cigarettes, or a drug or alcohol addiction.

Individuals who struggle with alcohol and drug addiction face mental health challenges. Sometimes, it’s difficult to know which problem happened first. People can start misusing drugs because of their mental illness. Or they developed mental illness after starting to misuse drugs. We call this dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders.

This guide explores the statistics, effects, and resources related to loneliness, mental illness, and substance abuse, providing insights into each aspect and offering support to those in need.

In this article

Understanding Loneliness: Statistics and Insights

Loneliness is more than just a feeling. It’s a complex condition that affects millions globally. According to a recent survey, nearly 40% of adults report feeling lonely. The rise of the digital age has increased connectivity while exacerbating feelings of isolation for many.

Elderly and young adults are the most affected groups. For the elderly, loneliness is often driven by several factors:

  • Loss of loved ones: As people age, they are more likely to experience the death of friends and family members, which can lead to increased isolation.
  • Reduced mobility: Health issues that limit mobility can make it difficult for elderly individuals to engage in social activities, reducing their interaction with others.
  • Retirement: Transitioning from work to retirement can result in a significant reduction in daily social interactions and a sense of purpose, contributing to feelings of loneliness.
  • Dementia: Loneliness can lead to a 50% increased risk of developing dementia in older adults.
  • Heart Conditions: The health impacts can result in a 32% increased risk of stroke. There is a nearly fourfold increased risk of death among heart failure patients.

Young adults experience loneliness due to different sets of challenges:

  • Transitional phases: This group often faces significant life changes, such as moving to school or work, which can disrupt existing social networks.
  • Digital interaction: Although highly connected online, young adults might lack deeper, meaningful relationships. The prevalence of social media can exacerbate feelings of isolation and inadequacy by promoting comparisons with others.
  • Economic pressures: Financial instability and job market pressures can also contribute to social isolation, as young adults may prioritize work over social interactions.

The relationship between increased social media use and higher levels of perceived social isolation is a complex phenomenon. Despite social media platforms’ original intent to enhance connectivity and social interaction, numerous studies have indicated that their use can actually lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. 

Here’s how this occurs:

  • Superficial Connections: Social media often promotes brief, surface-level interactions that lack the depth and emotional engagement of face-to-face relationships. These shallow exchanges can leave individuals feeling unsatisfied and disconnected despite having numerous online “friends” or followers.
  • Constant Comparisons: Platforms like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter allow users to share highlights of their lives, often portraying an idealized version of reality. Regular exposure to such curated content can make individuals feel inadequate or left out, especially if their own lives seem less exciting or fulfilling by comparison. This comparison can worsen feelings of isolation and loneliness.
  • Time Displacement
    Spending excessive time online can displace real-world interactions. The time invested in scrolling through feeds and watching stories is time not spent on engaging in direct, meaningful social activities. This displacement can reduce the quality and quantity of real-life social connections, increasing feelings of loneliness.
  • The Feedback Loop: Social media platforms are designed to be addictive, encouraging constant engagement to generate more data and ad revenue. This can lead to a compulsive need to check notifications or update feeds, a behavior that can isolate individuals from their immediate physical environment and the people around them.
  • Emotional Contagion: Research suggests that emotions can be contagious on social media platforms. Exposure to negative content, such as posts about stress, anxiety, or loneliness, can influence users’ moods, potentially leading to increased feelings of isolation.
  • Cyberbullying: The anonymity and distance provided by social media can sometimes lead to harsher interactions, such as cyberbullying. Being targeted by or witnessing such negative behavior can contribute to feelings of being socially isolated and unsupported.

Social media and technology can create a false sense of connection. The average American spends 6 hours and 59 minutes looking at a screen daily.

The loneliness rate among young adults increased every year between 1976 and 2019.  20% of teens ages 13 to 17 who say they are online most of the time have doubled since 2015.

Seniors are also impacted on the other side of the age spectrum. The effects of being tech-challenged go beyond the confusion of social media platforms. It also makes getting help for mental health less accessible. 

For example, therapy transitioned to virtual during COVID-19. Instant access to mental health resources is generally a positive thing. But it’s not for aging dementia patients. They can suffer from paranoia, depression, and memory loss. Individuals often struggle to understand how to find and connect to virtual therapy.

loneliness epidemic

Mental Health Effects of Loneliness

Loneliness is not just a temporary feeling. It has profound effects on mental health. Chronic loneliness can lead to or exacerbate conditions such as:

The mental health impact of loneliness can be severe, leading to significant impairments in daily functioning and overall well-being.

Social Effects of Loneliness

The impact of loneliness extends beyond the individual, affecting social interactions and community engagement. People who feel lonely are less likely to participate in social activities, which can lead to a cycle of isolation and increased loneliness. 

Social effects can include the following:

  • Reduced social skills
  • Decreased empathy
  • Withdrawal from community activities

Substance Abuse and Loneliness

Substance abuse is both a cause and effect of loneliness. Individuals often turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with feelings of isolation, which can lead to a destructive cycle of addiction and further loneliness.

People often turn to substance abuse as a misguided attempt to escape loneliness. Recovery from substance abuse often requires addressing underlying issues of loneliness.

loneliness epidemic

Resources for Combating Loneliness, Mental Illness, and Substance Abuse

Mental Health Resources

  • AmeriCorps Seniors Program matches older adults (55 and older) with volunteer opportunities that align with their abilities and interests.
  • Crisis Text Line 24/7 offers support with a live, trained crisis counselor. Text HOME to 741741.
  • DeafLEAD provides a 24/7 videophone crisis line for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Connect at 573-303-5604 or text HAND to 839863.
  • Down Dog is a yoga and movement home workout app. It answers questions for a custom yoga routine. This app is excellent for yoga newbies since it takes the guesswork out.
  • Lifeline is ready to help if you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support. Call the Lifeline via TTY by dialing 800-799-4889 or clicking the Chat button.
  • My Possible Self is a clinically proven app that helps reduce stress and anxiety by reframing the future positively, reminding you of your progress, and providing goal-based learning.
  • notOK App is a digital “panic button” for immediate support when you’re struggling to reach out. You set your trusted contacts as your support.
  • ReachOut is a youth-focused, safe place to connect with others and chat anonymously. Get support and feel better.
  • Sanvello offers support for anyone who’s going through mild anxiety, depression, and stress using techniques rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and peer support.
  • The Lonely Hour helps individuals feel less alone with this podcast, hosted by Julia Bainbridge. She works to break the stigma of loneliness and celebrate the joy in solitude.
  • The NAMI HelpLine is a free, nationwide peer-support service providing information, resource referrals, and support to people with mental health conditions. Call 800-950-NAMI (6264) or text “HelpLine” to 62640.
  • The Plum Village App is free with unique guided meditations, deep relaxations, and other practices offered by the late Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh and his monastic community.
  • The Trevor Project is a national organization providing a full range of crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ+ youth. They offer a hotline, text, or chat. Call 866-488-7386, text 678678, or chat online.
  • Volunteer Match helps people to find volunteer organizations in their local area, broken down by interest. You can filter by in-person or virtual opportunities.

Substance Abuse Resources

  • Addiction Unlimited is an addiction podcast with a real-life approach to living substance-free, supportive community, and Coaching services.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous is an international support group for quitting drinking. AA provides support through its twelve-step program to help individuals overcome a drinking problem.
  • FindTreatment.gov is a confidential and anonymous resource for persons seeking mental and substance use disorder treatment in the United States and its territories.
  • Fitness and Nutrition Resources teaches strategies for getting better while in recovery. These strategies involve implementing exercise and nutrition into everyday life while maintaining a healthy mind and body.
  • I Am Sober is a highly user-friendly sobriety-tracking app with features to help users build new habits and connect with the recovery community.
  • In Recovery with Dr. Nzinga Harrison is a weekly podcast and go-to for all questions about addiction, treatment, mental health, recovery, and everything in between.
  • LBGTQ+ Substance Abuse Resources is a curated selection of resources on how substance abuse affects this community and how rehab centers can help.
  • Learn 2 Cope is a non-profit support network offering education, resources, peer support, and hope for parents and family members coping with a loved one addicted to opioids or other drugs.
  • NASADAD is a collection of essential resources from the federal government relating to substance use disorders.
  • Recovery Today is one of the top digital magazines for the addiction recovery community, and you can access every issue with its app.
  • Sober Grid is a social networking app, “the world’s largest recovery app,” specifically designed for people in recovery. 
  • Narcotics Anonymous helps those trying to overcome drug or alcohol dependence using their twelve-step program.
  • Relapse Prevention Plan is a straightforward guide to creating your relapse prevention plan when things get lonely.
  • Shatterproof is an organization dedicated to substance abuse that helps with essential information on where to get help in a crisis and types of aftercare or post-treatment support.
  • SMART Recovery is the leading evidence-based, non-12-step addiction recovery program. Join a complimentary meeting today and begin experiencing a Life Beyond Addiction.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) provides treatment referral and information services for individuals and families dealing with mental health problems and substance use disorders.
  • Stay Quit Coach is an app designed to help Veterans with PTSD quit smoking. We based this app on steps proven to work to help people quit smoking.
  • The Confident Health app matches you to other individuals for support and recovery purposes.
  • Women for Sobriety is a nonprofit that uses in-person meetings and an online virtual community forum where women can share and seek support for substance use disorders.
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Don’t Suffer in Silence

Understanding the intricate relationships between loneliness, mental health, and substance abuse is crucial for addressing these issues effectively. By utilizing available resources and fostering genuine connections, individuals can combat the effects of loneliness and lead healthier, more fulfilled lives. 

Remember, reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. To connect with our team at The Summit Wellness Group, call us at (770) 824-3698. Let us help you find the right fit for your treatment.

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We’d love the opportunity to help you during this overwhelming and difficult process. The Summit Wellness Group is located in Georgia and all of your calls will be directed to one of our local staff members. Our sincere passion is helping people recover so that they can live full, meaningful and healthy lives.

Call us 24/7 at 770-299-1677. If we aren’t the right fit for you then we’ll utilize our expertise and connections within the treatment industry to assist you in finding the best provider for your specific needs. Alternatively you can fill out our contact form and a member of our staff will contact you shortly.